By Annia Ciezadlo and Preethi Nallu

COCHIN, INDIA—In the morning, before she left for work, Ambika Thankappan called her son Arun to tell him their world was about to drown.

“Da, it’s already flooded to the nearby villages,” she told him in a calm voice, using an affectionate Malayalam word for boy. “And it’s starting to reach our village.”

“I’ll be there in an hour,” he replied.

Arun jumped on his motorbike and set off through the rain toward their home. But the water was already a foot and a half deep. And it was rising fast. If he didn’t get there in time, it would swallow everything they’d worked their lives to build: their home and everything they loved, including Messi, their tail-wagging, face-licking yellow dog.

On a normal day, Arun would be working at a shop at the Cochin International Airport, in India’s southwestern coastal state of Kerala. Ambika would be working at the same airport, collecting trolleys and lining them up for travelers; a man named Wilson Perez would be picking tomatoes in Immokalee, Florida; and in Toronto, two men named Klever Freire and Gabriel Otrin would be doing something that 81 million people1 do, every day, without expecting to fight for their lives: taking an elevator.

But August 15, 2018—India’s Independence Day, as it happens—was not a normal day for Arun and his mother. That morning, after three days of nonstop heavy rain, the water began to rise. And rise.

Economists are still trying to calculate the long-term effects of our drowning world on global trade chains, national GDPs, household income and inequality. Emerging research suggests that the human and financial costs of flooding are already much higher, and much longer-lasting, than ever suspected. One recent study6 found that without large-scale structural adaptations, the total economic losses from river flooding alone will increase by 17 percent globally, thanks to climate change, over the next 20 years.

“If we’re only adding up the direct cost of a flood on the houses that were inundated, and the price it took to bail those out, and the price it takes to repair infrastructure, and other things like that, then we’re potentially missing large hidden costs associated with those floods,” said Amir Jina, a University of Chicago professor who works with Climate Impact Lab, a collaboration between climate scientists, economists, data engineers and risk analysts that is attempting to comprehensively quantify the impacts of climate change.

Four years ago, Jina and another researcher, Solomon M. Hsiang, looked at the effects of hurricanes—of which flooding makes up a major part of the cost—on national incomes. “We found something which I think surprised a lot of people, even us,” said Jina. “Even 20 years into the future after a hurricane hits, you see a decline in their GDP.”

The people who live in the path of a flood, like Arun and Ambika, are often those who would normally be carrying out the small, everyday tasks that keep the global economy in motion. Because floods tend to hit them the hardest, it can take these families decades to recover. The damage to them will cost us all—even if we don’t live anywhere near the sea.

Tweet“It’s not just a coastal problem,” pointed out Jina. “It’s an everybody problem.”

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Climate Impact Lab
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