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Maharashtra's Forgotten Victims of the 2019 Floods

Maharashtra's 2019 floods in Sangli district caused widespread loss of life and livelihood, severely impacting persons with disabilities. This disaster is a textbook example of why our disaster management strategies must be inclusive.

By Apsara Aga, Mongabay
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Maharashtra's flood victims

The forgotten victims of Maharashtra’s 2019 floods | A road in Sangli district, a few days after the heavy rain in 2019. Image by Varsha Deshpande via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed).

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  • Maharashtra's 2019 floods in Sangli district resulted in widespread loss as unprecedented rainfall caused significant loss of life and livelihood.
  • Persons with disabilities faced heightened challenges during the floods, struggling for survival amidst the rising waters and lack of assistance.
  • The disaster highlighted the urgent need for inclusive disaster management strategies, emphasising the vulnerability of marginalised groups like persons with disabilities in extreme weather events.

“Floods are common in this region, but the gravity of the 2019 floods struck us with terror, as we were unsure of our survival,” says Shaila Javanjale, 47, a person with disability, who lives in Maharashtra's Sangli district. Polio has rendered her feet and spine weak, and so, she is unable to walk.

In 2019, unprecedented rainfall resulted in loss of lives and livelihoods in cities and towns such as Kolhapur, Sangli and Karad. About 50 people lost their lives across these regions. Government estimates suggest that  96,000 hectares of agriculture land was damaged in the flood-affected districts of Sangli and Kolhapur with a potential loss of 700 crore.

The impact of the floods was disproportionately higher on persons with disabilities who found moving to safety and then accommodating in relief centres difficult.

Recounting the year, Javanjale says that the water in the Krishna river rose rapidly. “We are quite used to floods and hence chose to not leave our homes. But we had underestimated the rise in water level,” she adds. “At one point, it was 57 feet, submerging more than half of Sangli city. Thousands of people had to wade through the water in the dark. Homes had to be vacated. Everyone was struggling to save their own lives, but what about me? I was shouting for help and for the first time, I truly felt disabled.”

Maharashtra's 2019 flood victims
Nashima Mujawar, a person with disability, was severely affected during the 2019 floods. Persons with disabilities found it hard to move to safety. Accommodation in relief centres was also difficult. Image by Rushikesh More.

Javanjale can walk only with support. The 2019 floods barely left her alive.

Nashima Mujawar, 52, is also a person with disability and tries to be independent in her work. However, when she recalls the 2019 floods, her eyes well up.

“The water level rose quickly and rescue teams were evacuating everyone with boats,” she says. “Everyone could quickly get onto the boat, but I could not walk, and neither was anyone ready to help me even though the water level had reached my waist. My husband and I ended up wading through water. While I did request people to help me, nobody came to our rescue.”

Javanjale and Mujawar are both residents of the Burli village, located in the Palus tehsil of Sangli district.

Extreme Rains Leave Many Helpless

The rains in 2019 arrived only in July, following an unusually hot and sultry June. The village residents were happy with the rain. However, this happiness was short-lived, as the increasing intensity and quantity of the rainfall submerged their hopes along with most parts of the region. The low-pressure belt formed between central India and Maharashtra's western region resulted in the usual monsoon becoming extreme. The banks of rivers Krishna, Warna and Panchganga overflowed due to the unprecedented rainfall.

Maharashtra's Sangli, Kolhapur and Satara district received very heavy rainfall of 1,918 mm in comparison to the normal average of 333 mm in the July 27 to August 13 period.

The Krishna river was overflowing, resulting in the entire population on those banks being displaced. Climate change-induced torrential rainfall for nine days in a row, combined with poor disaster management and planning at the local level, were some of the primary reasons that augmented the floods in Sangli district.

The last recorded all-time monthly record was in 2005 when Sangli experienced 207 mm in 31 days and Kolhapur recorded 159 mm in the same period that year. In 2019, Sangli recorded 758 mm in nine days and Kolhapur, 180 mm in nine days.

Over 600 villages on the banks of the river, including Sangli’s Bhilavadi, Ankalkhop, Brahmanal, Karnal and to Nandre-Vasgade villages were completely submerged. While the residents here had seen floods through the years, they were not prepared for this extent and scale. It left thousands of people homeless and caused a loss of livelihood for many with livestock and cattle unable to survive.

‘My Disability Increased My Suffering’

Javanjale recalls that night when her entire home was submerged. “I was very scared when water started entering our home,” she says. “The villagers rescued us in a car and we stayed at a Zilla Parishad school nearby, waiting for water levels to recede.” She recounts that there were too many people crammed in the school premises and while her body ached because she sat in one place for too long, she suffered in silence, considering the situation around. “My disability made me suffer more than the others, as I had to depend on people for my basic needs such as using a toilet. There was a common toilet for both men and women and that made me even more uncomfortable.”

While the floods did recede after a few days, they had a difficult time making ends meet, paying for their children’s education and running the household. Her husband did odd-jobs as per availability and it was difficult to get work after the floods. They survived on help from other people. Javanjale is entitled to a monthly disability allowance of Rs 1,500, under the Indira Gandhi National Disability Pension Scheme which she will get till the age of 79. However, she says that the payments are not consistent and some months they do not receive it.

Talking about the cause of the flood, her husband Gunda says that humans are equally to be blamed for the situation, as much as natural causes. “Yes, the floods were indeed due to the so-called ‘cloud burst’ or excessive rains, but more so due to the unchecked construction in the riverbed as well as within the flood line. The natural geology of any region affects the flow, as well as drainage of water,” Gunda says. “It was affected due to major sand mining in riverbeds, cutting down of trees, industrial waste flowing into rivers, and an impossible amount of plastic and trash being thrown into the river. This change in flow of water and drainage has ultimately caused the villagers to suffer.”

Mujawar too recounts Maharashtra's 2019 floods. “People in our village tried fighting the floods for over four days, but we realised that we needed to escape if we had to survive,” she says. Her disability allows her to walk with some difficulty and do the usual chores. Yet, during the 2019 floods, she had a difficult time. “The villagers procured a private boat and began taking people to the shelter. While the capacity of the boat was only 18, they had 35 people on board being rowed to the shelter.” Mujawar says that nobody was willing to help her get on the boat since everyone wanted to save their own lives. “We walked the whole day and finally reached the shelter school in Kirloskarwadi by six in the evening,” she says. “My husband and I were shivering; our limbs were trembling and since I had to drag my leg while walking, it resulted in severe boils. In addition, since we reached later than everyone, we did not even get dry clothes or sheets. My husband was the only reason I even survived.”

Maharashtra's flood victim
Shaila Javanjale, who has polio, along with her husband Gunda Javanjale. The impact of the floods was disproportionately higher on persons with disabilities. Image by Rushikesh More.

Extreme weather conditions have been a threat to many lives and livelihoods, the world over. The impacts are seen every day – rich fertile land is undergoing desertification. Water shortage is affecting agriculture. Heat waves, heavy rains and storms are increasing in frequency and intensity. The hardest hit are those in economically poorer countries.

People across the globe are constantly working on addressing climate change. Governments, researchers, scientists, scholars, environmentalists and NGOs are making efforts towards dealing with the consequences of the changing climate. However, in the midst of this, persons with disabilities and the specific impacts of climate change on them are missed. Shaila Javanjale and Nashima Mujawar are just two of the many examples of how the impact of extreme weather conditions increases the vulnerability of people with disabilities.

Disaster Management Before Disaster Strikes

Doctors Amol and Sadhana Pawar, a couple from the Palus tehsil have worked in the flood-affected regions in the past and witnessed the difficulties faced by persons with disabilities in the region’s 2019 floods. “It was the worst that the Krishna river had witnessed in a while,” says Amol, about the floods. “The flood line also showed a rise by six to seven feet, in comparison to the last flood situation. The houses on the riverbanks have always had a flood threat, but the ones located further away, especially up the hills never faced any flood danger. However, the 2019 floods were disastrous.” Water had overflown the riverbed and was spread across villages which were more than three kilometres from the shore and there was no access to people there.  “A few people stayed in schools and a few in shelters. We, too, had given our entire hospital premises to those seeking refuge. The most difficult task was to rescue persons with disabilities, as they could not do anything on their own.” He also says that the shelter homes were overcrowded and had limited facilities for toilets and bathrooms.

Atul Deulgaonkar, a senior environmental researcher from Maharashtra, elaborates on a comprehensive disaster management plan, when he discusses the issue of rehabilitation of persons with disabilities during floods. “Maharashtra has a State Disaster Management Authority and so does the government of India also has a Disaster Management Authority at the Centre. A district collector is supposed to head the disaster management in every district. All three entities are engaged in disaster management and planning every year, right before the monsoon starts. However, we often witness unseasonal showers, hence it is recommended that all villages on a riverbank should have a minimum of one meeting before the rains start.”

Maharashtra's 2019 flood
Mula river in August 2019. Image by Tushar Sarode via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed).

Deulgaonkar added that the 2006 survey done by the United Nations shows that if one rupee is spent on managing the disaster before it strikes, it saves almost 20 rupees during the disaster. “Importantly, every disaster needs a different strategy for planning and management. The planning required for floods is different from that of an earthquake or drought.”

Dealing with floods usually requires a strong Primary Health Centre, Aanganwadi or school building so the affected population can seek refuge. Additionally, every gram panchayat needs to have data of the senior citizens, the persons with disabilities and pregnant women. The state’s disaster management plan suggests that disabled persons and other vulnerable groups need to be taken special care of at the time of disasters especially at the time of rescue efforts for which maintaining such data is essential, explains Deulgaonkar. “It is also recommended that the villages seek help from the National Cadet Corps or National Service Scheme, who will help manage the relief work better. The gram panchayat should always anticipate the possibility of floods and take collective action at a tehsil level.” Deulgaonkar says that it is recommended that collective planning for disaster management should be done at every tehsil level.

This story is produced under Project Dharitri, a joint undertaking by Asar and Baimanus. Mongabay-India is collaborating with the Project to highlight climate and gender issues.

Read the story in Marathi here.

This article first appeared on Mongabay. Here is the original link to the source.

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