India ranks among the top five countries which have been hit by the most number of natural disasters in the last decade.
India is among the few countries in the world which can boast of almost all the physical features on Earth—rivers, lakes, sea, deserts, mountains, plateaus, plains, islands— present within its boundaries. However, this diversity comes at a cost — it makes India susceptible to natural disasters.
In the last 17 years, India has faced more than 300 natural disasters which include drought, earthquake, epidemics, extreme temperature, floods, landslides and storms. These disasters have resulted in 76,031 deaths in this millennium, according to the International Disaster Database (IDD).
Cumulatively, more than 1 billion people have suffered owing to natural disasters. The estimated damage sustained by India in the last 17 years due to these disasters amounts to USD 63.6 billion (Rs 4,06,035 crore), according to the database.
In comparison, China dealt with 537 events of disasters in the same time period which affected cumulatively 1.7 billion people and killed 1,12,787 people. The economic loss sustained was worth a whopping USD 379 billion.
The disaster which causes the most damage to property and second most in taking Indian lives is floods. Hundreds of rivers, many of them perennial, dot the Indian landscape. While being life-sustaining most of the time, they turn into devils every monsoon, taking hundreds of lives every year.
The graph depicts deaths due to flood and number of reported flood events. Data for initial years may be inconsistent to a certain degree because reliable recorded data was not available. Source: International Disaster Database
The data for last 17 years shows that around 25,000 people were killed due to rampant floods in the country. There were instances of 155 floods (including coastal floods, flash floods and riverine floods) affecting over 300 million people, cumulatively.Post-independence, there has been a gradual increase in the number of instances of floods and consequently, the deaths due to such calamities have also shot up. Since 1947, there has been flooding in 283 rivers and oceans which have resulted in deaths of 70,343 people, according to the International Disaster Database.
|Natural disasters in India post-independence|
|Disasters||Events count||Total deaths||Total affected||Total damage (million USD)|
4. A – (dash) reflects that data points for that cell were inconsistent. Source: International Disaster Database
One of the reasons widely attributed to the rise in flood instances is the increased number of dams on rivers, which ironically were built to mitigate the floods. The number of dams in India has grown from 371 in 1950 to 4,819 as per the latest figures provided by the Central Water Commission.
The dams and embankments obstruct the natural flow of the rivers. Due to these, when their catchment areas receive rainfall, the rivers start overflowing, even breaking the embankments, as they have no breathing space. This results in flooding of adjoining areas.
Also, the reservoir created with dams collects layers of silt over time. That means the altitude at which rivers flow is more than the surrounding areas. Hence, whenever there is water overflow, it flows into residential areas.
Dry spells of death
Though economically not as damaging, droughts in India are the biggest killers among natural disasters. Droughts have killed nearly seven times as many people post-independence as all other natural disasters combined. The number of deaths due to droughts is an estimated 1.5 million whereas the total toll for all others combined stands at 222,806.
According to Moody’s, India is more prone to drought compared to other similar-rated nations due to reasons which include a higher share of agriculture in overall employment, and weak rural infrastructure and irrigation and inefficient food distribution.
A Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) report says that India has faced 16 major drought years and nine major flood years post-independence (till 2015). The report is based on anomalies (+-10 percent difference from the mean) in rain patterns.
The red bars indicate drought years and blue flood years. Source: CSIR
The dependence on agriculture means that a drought forces people to starve, which eventually leads to mass deaths. In 2015, at least nine states in India were declared hit by drought that affected one-third of Indian population.
Droughts also cost India dearly in terms of economics. In the last 70 years, over USD 5.4 billion worth of damage has been caused by droughts as crops are devastated and government spending increases.
Economic damage: India vs Others
As per historical data (1947-2017), India stands third in terms of economic damage suffered due to natural disasters among the countries with a comparable area or population, according to the database. Among the BRICS countries, it stands at the second position, behind China (estimated economic damage numbers do not take into account inflation, exchange rates or difference in cost of living).
More recently, in 2016, India with USD 4 billion was fifth in the list for most monetary damages sustained by a country. China with USD 45 billion, the US with USD 44 billion and Japan with USD 20 billion were the first three.However, in terms of the number of people affected and reported disastrous events, it stood at first and third, respectively. In fact, the number of people affected by disasters in India was more than the next nine countries put together.