“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.
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
“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.
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.
“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
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.”
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.
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.”