Climate Change

When COVID-19, climate collide: How south Asia can prepare itself

Careful planning is needed to avoid major damage, while marshalling resources towards limiting the spread of COVID-19

By Giriraj Amarnath
Published: Monday 27 April 2020

Countries in south Asia are bracing themselves for an onslaught of climate disasters, as if managing the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is not enough.

April is the prime month for cyclones to strike India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, while central and southern India are forecast to heat up faster than usual this spring, making heatwaves more likely. Normal to above-average monsoon rainfall could bring floods to parts of the country from June as well.

Careful planning is needed to avoid major damage to crops, homes and infrastructure, while marshalling resources towards limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Cyclones are the most pressing problem: Meteorological forecasts based on satellite technology indicate that a large expanse of northeast India and Bangladesh are set to experience extremely high rainfall and thunderstorms in the coming two weeks.

Notably, a cyclone forecast for May 2, 2020 in the southern part of Bangladesh is likely to have a high impact in coastal cities and potentially further inland too.

Shirish Ravan, who implements the United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response, believes space-based technologies can provide critical information ahead of crises on their potential extent and scale of impacts.

A map showing the state of maturity of crops around the world, created by scientists at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and CGIAR Research Program of Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) provides an example.

It shows that extensive areas within the path of the forecast storms in India and Bangladesh are planted with crops. Dark green areas in the map shown below indicate where crops will be ripening in the fields beyond April 23.

Meteorological forecasts indicating approaching cyclone


Maturing crops (seen in dark green areas)

Source: IMWI

Upcoming extreme weather events, including this and the coronavirus pandemic present a host of challenges for governments.

North and northwest states in India, for example, have already struggled to harvest and sell summer wheat, fruit and vegetable crops because of lockdown measures disrupting food production activities.

If the cyclone damages later-ripening crops in more eastern parts, it will place even more pressure on the agricultural sector, and threaten the livelihoods and welfare of poor smallholder farmers, with likely knock-on effects for revenue-raising food exports and food prices.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the parts of India and Bangladesh where the cyclone is set to hit are still relatively low. In other places where extreme events are forecast, however, numbers are higher.

Scientists at IWMI compared a map showing levels of risk from multiple natural hazards (landslide, cyclone, heatwaves, floods and coastal inundation, drought, earthquake, extreme rainfall and forest fire) with the latest plot of COVID-19 cases published by India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Scientists identified 411 districts in 22 states that have both, higher risks from natural hazards and elevated COVID-19 cases.

Risk from multiple natural hazards combined with population exposure

Source: IMWI

Confirmed COVID-19 cases across northeast India and Bangladesh as on April 23

Source: National Disaster Management Authority, India

Well-thought-out planning for how these districts should manage potential disasters is critical, given that India is currently in lockdown until at least May 3.

Take Maharashtra, for example, where 5,652 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed, with 269 reported deaths.

Large parts of the state show a high level of risk for multiple hazards, including heatwaves. The arrival of a heatwave will likely increase the number of people needing hospital treatment at a time when services are already stretched because of the pandemic.

It is a similar story for states likely affected by the monsoon. Bihar — India’s most flood-prone state — will need to prepare a joint response to COVID-19 and flooding, as well as safely housing people whose homes are inundated, without increasing their risk of contracting COVID-19.

This should include financial provision for smallholder farmers who have lost crops.

Insurance is one financial mechanism to consider. Scientists from IWMI, CGIAR Research Program of Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), WLE and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) recently tested a satellite-based insurance scheme in Bihar to compensate farmers in the case of flooding.

Farmers who took part in the scheme shared a total payout of Rs 8 lakh when their crops were damaged during the 2019 monsoon.

In Sri Lanka — where IWMI’s headquarters are located — the monsoon brings rain between May and July. It can sometimes unleash extreme events, including flooding and landslides.

The number of mosquito-borne Dengue fever cases often greatly increases, wherever storm water is released in urban canals.

The western, southern and central regions that the monsoon affects are also worryingly forecast to be the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Anoja Seneviratne, Director of Sri Lanka’s Disaster Management Centre, urged the country to prepare now for the combined impacts of extreme events and the pandemic, saying thousands of people could be affected.

In the past two decades, more than 750 million people in South Asia have been affected by at least one natural disaster.

Of late, the Disaster Risk Reduction sector has sought to shift disaster-prone countries’ focus from response preparedness, where actions plans are simply put in place to deal with the aftermath of disasters, to disaster risk reduction, where a greater level of resilience is built into communities to make them more able to endure disasters.

With time running out before new climate extremes arrive and collide with the COVID-19 pandemic, IWMI and its partners are making ten recommendations to guide South Asian nations.

Countries need to get ahead of the coming crises by moving quickly on act on these recommendations. Only early action, heavy allocation of resources and smart planning will make sure we can avoid collapse of medical, economic and food systems.

Here are the recommendations for managing climate disasters concurrently with COVID-19:

  • Integrate multiple hazard and COVID-19 hotspots to inform disaster preparedness and response strategies for monsoon planning
  • Minimise the burden on hospitals arising from other hazards (by treating COVID-19 patients separately)
  • Revise standard operating procedures (SOPs) for managing cyclone shelters, with the participation of communities. Incorporate social distancing and provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) in these SOPs
  • Strengthen capacities and resources for preparing for other hazards. For example, explore the possibility of using schools and colleges (with social distancing) as temporary shelters
  • Advise disaster response forces on protecting themselves from COVID-19. Establish protocols for their protection and provide personnel with appropriate PPE and psycho-social support
  • Establish support networks (with social distancing) for providing food and financial relief for the most vulnerable
  • Put in place provisions for the elderly in disaster-preparedness mechanisms to reduce, or, if possible, eliminate their exposure to COVID-19
  • Strengthen hospital preparedness, including access to sanitation and quality water, to protect functionality when natural disasters strike
  • Establish capability for rapid response mapping, incorporating GIS data for hospital and health center locations, connectivity, schools and colleges, and other community facilities. This can include supporting the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team
  • Form multiple-hazard response teams with wide-ranging expertise and the capacity to respond rapidly to both, COVID-19 and natural disasters

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