Ravishaan Muthiah: The Punjab Floods Expose The Nature Of Climate Breakdown
"So as climate breakdown continues and our communities face its wrath, we must be loud in our calls for climate justice to defend them."
Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah
July 13, 2023 | 4.5 min. read | Opinion
Torrential monsoon rains have caused the rivers and canals of north India to burst at the seams, with large areas across Punjab becoming stormy seas overnight. Large ruptures in canals have led to expanses of Punjab’s agricultural land being submerged and massive stretches of road being washed away. The extreme downpour has destroyed houses and infrastructure, led to a growing death toll, and forced thousands from their homes.
These floods have shown how quickly climate breakdown can affect our communities in Punjab and how the climate crisis is already here for people in the global South.
Sadly this is not the first time life-wrecking floods have bulldozed through Punjab, and, likely, it won’t be the last time. The 1988 and 1993 floods saw nearly 20% of the state submerged under water, but the lessons from these floods still haven’t been learnt.
A mixture of state corruption and political mismanagement has meant Punjab has become a state built for both fatal extremes - droughts and floods.
Despite warnings, Punjab’s drainage system has not been maintained for several decades - increasing the risks of severe flooding, as we have seen this week. Its rivers are also diverted into neighbouring states causing Punjab to experience water scarcity, wells to run dry, and making the state the leading example of India’s groundwater crisis. Curiously enough, those same dams and canals that have diverted Punjab’s waters against its wishes, such as the Rajasthan feeder, have now been reportedly shut, providing no relief to a submerged Punjab.
With extreme weather only becoming more common as the climate crisis worsens, it is high time the government and international community addresses these issues.
To add insult to injury, it is clear that the communities in North India that are most affected had very little to do with the crisis that brought us here. Punjab, where 83% of the land is under cultivation and 65% of the people rely directly on agriculture, has for decades been known as India’s “bread basket.” Punjabi communities, where people live off the land and within their means to feed their families and provide for their community, are, in fact, the model for the sustainable and environmentally friendly future we need. These communities are planet defenders and were on the frontlines of the Farmers’ Protest to maintain equitable farming. They successfully stopped the Indian government from enabling corporations to buy Punjab's farms en masse and halted the government's continued ecological, biological and economic infrastructure destruction in its tracks.
In stark contrast to Punjab’s sustainable farmers who nourish and depend on the Earth’s climate are the corporations that burn fossil fuels without a care and have created a fossil-fuelled profit over planet economy that has driven climate breakdown. But these private firms don’t suffer the consequences of a wall of water forcing its way through their cities unexpectedly.
We know that the richest 1% of the world’s population causes twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50%. The UN has warned of a ‘climate apartheid’, as wealthy nations pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer. But these injustices are not an accident – they are deeply rooted in Europe’s colonial project. Countries in the global North decimated rainforests, wetlands, grasslands and minerals to extract resources, and indigenous communities were enslaved, displaced and murdered so that colonisers could exploit their land to increase their own wealth and power. But the governments of these same colonising nations are getting away without any blame for the crisis they caused while communities in the global south suffer the most.
The options for communities facing climate chaos are limited, remain and try to rebuild in the hope that destructive weather doesn't return, or move to a safer place for yourself and your family.
Inevitably climate breakdown is leading to internal and external movement - no one wants to live where the risk of catastrophic floods is an annual occurrence. To make matters worse, we are seeing a tightening of borders and a criminalisation of those who are forced to move. These policies recently led to the death of more than 300 people in the Mediterranean. And many who are forced to move are now being punished, criminalised and even blamed for the consequences of climate chaos – as if they were responsible for these problems instead of the politicians and billionaires profiting from climate destruction. But the politicians who can help our communities continue to sit on their hands at global climate negotiations - COP talks continue to move at a snail's pace. Meanwhile, there still is not any slowdown in the burning of fossil fuels which is leading us to more extreme weather disasters.
So as climate breakdown continues and our communities face its wrath, we must be loud in our calls for climate justice to defend them. Just like we called for our governments to take action and call out the Indian government during the Farmers’ Protest, we must also call for them to take the climate crisis seriously.
Climate justice means calling for reparations for those who are continuing to suffer the effects of the climate crisis. It means calling for people on the frontlines, like in Punjab right now, to have the right to remain and live safely in their communities but also the right to move if they wish. It means migration must be a form of climate adaptation that our governments embrace, but instead, we are seeing governments turn away people seeking safety, like in the UK, and embracing the politics of the far-right – trying to send refugees to Rwanda, locking more and more people up in asylum camps and in detention centres, and breaking their climate pledges.
We must demand that our governments rebalance the history of colonialism that has led to the unfair burden and consequences of climate breakdown that we’re seeing play out in front of our eyes in Punjab right now.
If we don’t act today, tomorrow may be too late.
Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah is the Communications Director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI). Rav previously led record-breaking campaigns at the Labour Party and won campaigns against corporate giants at Greenpeace UK and Small Axe. JCWI is a movement of people that has been fighting for justice in immigration, asylum and nationality law in the UK for over 55 years. You can find Rav on Twitter @RavSRM and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants on Twitter @JCWI_UK.
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