Flooding destroyed his home four times in three years. This is the reality of climate change for India's poor
Updated 8:02 PM ET, Sat October 30, 2021
New Delhi (CNN)Anish Yadav was sleeping in his home, a fragile hut made of wood and plastic, when the water rushed in.
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, whic