A concrete retaining wall that had previously held back monsoon floodwaters had collapsed, sending a deluge through Yadav’s slum in Malad, a northern suburb in India’s financial hub Mumbai.
“We woke up to people screaming for help,” said Yadav, 26, of that night in July 2019. “The water had risen to our heads … and I saw people being swept away with the water with my own eyes.”
For his entire life, the wall had protected Yadav and his neighbors from increasingly severe monsoon storms. His house had never been damaged before — but with the wall now gone, he has had to rebuild his home four times in three years.
Every year, thousands of people die in India from flooding and landslides during the monsoon season, which drenches the country from June to September.
The monsoon is a natural weather phenomenon caused by warm, moist air moving across the Indian Ocean toward South Asia as the seasons change. But the climate crisis has caused the event to become more extreme and unpredictable.
India’s poor, like Yadav, are among the most vulnerable.
“The irony of it is that the poor of the world are actually victims of climate change,” even if they aren’t the ones who “created the problem,” said Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment and veteran Indian environmentalist.
This weekend, world leaders are gathering in Glasgow for the COP26 climate talks as they seek to reduce carbon emissions and avoid a catastrophic rise in global temperatures.
Yet for millions of Indians, pledges on paper won’t save their homes. The climate crisis is already at their front door — and it’s knocking down the frame.
Four homes lost in three years
Mumbai, the country’s most populous city, boasts glittering skyscrapers and glitzy luxury hotels. It’s also a city of widespread poverty and wealth inequality, where about 65% of its 12 million residents live in shacks of tarp and tin in crowded slums.
Yadav and his mother were evacuated to a school after their home was first swept away in 2019. The flood had killed 32 people, and authorities said the slum was too dangerous to live in — but when an offer of new housing didn’t materialize, Yadav and his mother returned to the slum to rebuild.
“My house is about 10 by 15 feet and the floor is made of dirt,” Yadav said. “In that soil, we have hammered down wooden poles. We tie them together and then cover it with plastic sheets. If there is a cyclone or a strong wind, it will be uprooted entirely.”
Family members started keeping what scarce valuables they had in plastic bags, so they could evacuate quickly. But there’s only so much you can protect.
During the 2020 monsoon season, Yadav and his mother once again lost their home, clothing and precious food items to rain and flooding. It happened again in May this year, when a massive cyclone hit India’s west coast — an unusual event, since they typically strike the east coast.
Yadav said at that point, people were fed up with authorities and the constant cycle of destruction, evacuation and rebuilding. “How can we live this way?” he said.
The most recent disaster came in September, at the tail end of this year’s monsoon season, when debris from past flooding swept toward the slum.
“It was around 1:30 in the (morning) and debris started flowing down,” Yadav said. “It was raining heavily and we heard it moving.”
Residents were again evacuated to the school, where they remain to this day with little clean water or electricity and no toilets.
“We have no idea when we will go back or get another home,” Yadav said.
“(Authorities) are just saying that we will get housing in three to four days, but nothing is being done. People have lost their jobs and they don’t have money for food. The system is to blame here.”
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, Mumbai’s governing body, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Places are becoming unlivable
As the climate crisis worsens, floods pose a particular danger to the 35% of India’s population — roughly 472 million people — who live in urban slums, according to the World Bank.
Muralee Thummarukudy, acting head of the UN Environment Program’s Resilience to Disasters and Conflicts Global Support Branch, said slum dwellers tend to live in flimsy structures on the outskirts of cities where land is less stable and more exposed to natural disasters. They also often don’t have any kind of insurance that allows them to rebuild or relocate.
These residents are also more vulnerable to the secondary effects of flooding, including the spread of waterborne diseases, groundwater contamination, and the loss of food supplies.
Rajan Samuel, managing director in India for Habitat for Humanity, says disasters wipe out livelihoods as well as homes.
“The trend I am seeing is that livelihood gets disrupted with every disaster, and then there is shelter which goes as well,” he said. “We need to mitigate both.”
Some states have taken action — like Odisha, which built stormwater drains in its slums, or Kerala, which offers financial incentives for residents in climate-vulnerable places to relocate.
Yet on a national level, progress has been slow. Several ambitious initiatives to improve slums and retrofit cities have flailed over the past two decades, stymied by a lack of funding, insufficient participation, poor planning or the red tape of Indian bureaucracy, according to a number of international organizations, researchers and local media.
And though the government is now training cities across India to become “climate smart,” experts say there are many other measures that need to be taken — like improving evacuation processes and redesigning water systems and other urban infrastructure.
Narain, from the Centre for Science and Environment, said existing systems were built “at a time when disasters were still once in 10 years, once in five years. Now, it is 10 disasters a year.”
Recent floods, droughts and other devastating climate events are “all showing us very clearly what will the future be,” she added.
For years, climate experts and scientists have warned the climate crisis could displace more than a billion people in the coming decades — potentially forming a class of “climate migrants” and refugees. Flooding is one of the major dangers, with record rainfall causing devastation in Germany and China this summer.
In India, people are already on the move.
Natural disasters forced more than 5 million Indians to leave their homes in 2019, according to a study conducted by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace. And that number is expected to rise as the climate crisis worsens.
Many of those displaced Indians, like Yadav, have no means to relocate and no choice but to continually rebuild their homes in disaster-prone locations.
Yadav and his family are reluctant to move from their patch of land in the slum, unless the government provides an alternative.
He and his mother are now surviving off their meager savings, money borrowed from relatives, and cash earned from pawning their jewelry.
Right now, he’s losing hope and dreading the thought of having to rebuild — yet again.
“It has been going on for so long,” Yadav said. “You never know if the water will flood the house and destroy the house.”