Using sports to recover from catastrophic flooding and climate change


As climate change continues to create more catastrophic weather events, human trauma will follow. In some areas, sports are already an essential remedy.

When sports teacher Yogesh Parit saw the overflowing Krishna river, his instinct wasn’t to run away. Instead, on his budget smartphone, he quickly typed a message in vernacular Marathi language, “Training time.”

Over 50 young athletes meandered their way through waterlogged roads filled with potholes within 10 minutes. Each puddle reflected their sweaty, anxious faces. Then, one by one, they stepped swiftly on the19-centimeter-wide, reddish-brown bricks laid on the slushy soil.

It wasn’t a race, but the athletes had the same excitement and adrenaline that rushes upon hearing “on your mark.” The ground was awash. Only the Banyan tree, which the villagers say is seven generations, roughly 200 years, stood still. Its prop roots touched the soil as if trying to calm the flood.

The athletes in their torn shoes stopped at the river bank where they met Parit. The atmosphere was filled with the pitter-patter of rain droplets. In this moment of quasi-silence, everyone looked at Parit as their heartbeats soared.

Parit yelled, “tayar (ready)?”

It was a familiar instruction. Here, “Ready” meant the beginning of resilience training.

20 feet away was the Krishna river, charged with torrents of waves. The gushing water was loud enough to bring back the memories of trauma. They looked at this inundated river that flooded both in 2019 and 2021. There are over 50 concrete steps to the river. As the water starts climbing these steps, the 3,535 residents of Ghalwad village in Western India’s Maharashtra state are advised to vacate their homes. Traditional 30 feet long wooden rescue boats can now be seen near the river, hinting that the rescue operations were set to begin again.

To give a sense of the danger, Parit shared an incident from the second week of August 2019. “After the water crossed the last step, within 24 hours, our village drowned completely.”

The water had circumnavigated 500 feet so swiftly that at least 3000 people remained stranded in the floods. A similar incident occurred in July 2021, which left several younger athletes with trauma.

“Rainfalls now mean floods here. People are that scared,” explains Parit.

When faced with similar circumstances on July 16 this year, Parit knew he wouldn’t be bogged down. Carefully, these athletes walked toward the last step, trying to find their ground in the two-foot brownish water. Swiftly they grabbed two-foot long, sepia-colored wooden sticks. Then, exhaling and looking around twice, they all raised their stick to the neck level and started jogging at the same place.

This wasn’t a punishment.

“This time, there’s no fearing the floods,” said Parit loudly. With his voice thundering amidst the incessant rainfall, the athletes showed rising determination. Finally, after 30 minutes, he whistled. The students were happy not just because the workout ended but because they had learned to face their fear of floods.

Students of Bajrangbali academy running a patch of seven kilometers as part of their regular training on a concrete road where they must carefully dodge vehicles, especially trucks, tractors, and bullock carts. Photo Credit: Sanket Jain
Students of Bajrangbali academy running a patch of seven kilometers as part of their regular training on a concrete road where they must carefully dodge vehicles, especially trucks, tractors, and bullock carts. Photo Credit: Sanket Jain /

Catastrophes of climate change and healing through sports

“Despite this, we were all smiling,” said athlete Suraj Devtale. To Parit’s surprise, none of the athletes fell ill, and no injuries were reported. He monitored them for the next two weeks and was surprised. “Every student was prepared to face the floods,” he says proudly. A year back, they were on the verge of quitting sports because of the feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and rising stress caused by two floods and the rapidly changing climate.

Had the water level kept rising, these students would have had to leave the village, which is on the border of the Kolhapur district. “We were prepared even for that,” says Parit, a flood victim who stays in a modest house in Ghalwad.

“Two floods in the past three years forced me to find a way to help these students overcome stress,” he told FanSided. The recurring floods and the rapidly fluctuating local climatic pattern have had a tremendous mental impact on his 100-plus students, who come from over 20 different villages in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur and Sangli districts.

In 2007, Tanaji Thorwat, Sushil Maske, Sachin Phadtare, Vijay Mhalungekar, Vishvajit Kadam, Santosh Phadtare, Ramdas Phadtare, Nilesh Nikam, Rahul Patil, Sagar Thorwat, Priyanka Khade, Jyoti Kandle, Sunil Bait, and a few other like-minded people started the Bajrangbali career academy in Ghalwad village. Their goal was to help rural athletes from disadvantaged communities make a career in sports or become government officials and help them escape poverty.

A decade back, 5-foot-3-inch tall, Parit, who wasn’t eligible to join the Indian army because of his height, became the trainer at this academy. He decided to fulfill his dream by training students for free. “How can I charge money from these athletes?” he asked. “We are all like a family; this family has given me much love.”

29-year-old Parit completed his bachelor’s in arts and physical education and has focused on helping these athletes recover.

Running a sports academy with no dedicated ground, meager funds, and lack of adequate equipment, Parit knew he was taking a long shot. Nevertheless, his goal was clear, convert the helplessness stemming from climate change to hope.

To their surprise, the water level started receding the next day. Then, within a week, it began flowing below its normal level. “This still isn’t a sign of relief,” says Parit. He recalls the three-month dry season after the floodwater receded in 2019. “In the rainy season, we were facing a drought,” he remembers.

These tremendous climatic variations have now become common across several parts of India. For example, an independent study by the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water found that over 75 percent of India’s districts, home to roughly 638 million people, are vulnerable to extreme climate events. Among them is Suraj Devtale from Kolhapur district’s Shirati village.

Despite the floods, a few people always stay behind in Ghalwad to take care of animals and mitigate any local disaster. Credit: Sanket Jain
Despite the floods, a few people always stay behind in Ghalwad to take care of animals and mitigate any local disaster. Credit: Sanket Jain /

Consequences, physical and emotional

As the floodwater gushed inside athlete Devtale’s two-room brick house in 2019, he first ran to rescue his buffalo. Then, somehow escaping the floods, the family found a temporary shelter in a private school four miles away. Suraj’s father, Paigambar, a landless farmworker, was expecting to rely on the buffalo milk to make ends meet.

“With no proper fodder and the changing climate, our buffalo feel ill several times.” Paigambar found it challenging to raise fodder. “Unable to cope, he sold away the buffalo for merely Rs 18000 ($226),” says Devtale, taking away even their last source of income. Across India, the situation wasn’t promising either, as 123,000 cattle deaths were reported in 2019 alone because of natural disasters.

Paigambar couldn’t find work in the fields for the next three months as the receding floodwater had affected the soil’s nutrient cover. Suraj, too couldn’t help his family sustain nor afford the athletic diet. He relies on buffalo milk as one of his sources of calcium and other minerals. Unable to afford the costly dairy and to see his stamina level falling rapidly, he began experiencing severe anxiety. By October 2019, his stress, he says, peaked at an all-time high. “My platelets count fell below 100,000, leaving me hospitalized. The doctor said it was because of severe stress.”

25-year-old Devtale had never experienced this in his lifetime. “I just couldn’t understand what was happening,” he told FanSided.

When Parit learned this, he listened patiently to all his problems. The conversations lasted several hours, and a shy Devtale began opening up. “There were many bottled-up emotions and feelings of helplessness,” remembered Parit.

“I, too, am a flood victim, and I understand their plight,” he added. But, while Parit began offering solutions to his problems, his mastery lay in athletic training. So he decided to do what he’s best at and wholly changed his workouts.

It was a combination of running five miles every alternate day, battle ropes, and trekking hills. “These rigorous workouts help make you forget all the stress as they require complete concentration,” said Parit. Further, he began introducing meditation which Devtale says proved helpful. “It’s not just about the right workouts. It’s also about the mindset, timing, and perspective,” said Parit.

Devtale began observing tremendous changes, but his problems kept mounting. He had lost his important academic documents to floods, and getting them reissued from universities and schools can take years. Parit would pitch in and help him approach the right officials. Moreover, he even lost his sports kit, further straining him.

“You’ve to work at many levels to help them readjust to the changing surroundings and the environment,” said Parit. Workouts alone can’t fix the problem.

Shalmali Ranmale-Kakade, a clinical psychologist based in Kolhapur, said, “After a flood, the victims should be given six months to adapt and heal. If they cannot adjust even after six months, it can be labeled as adjustment disorder where they require professional help.” She says it’s important to let them vent out in these six months. Someone needs to validate their feelings of sadness, helplessness, and grief empathetically.

Athlete Suraj Devtale who works as a home guard, has to double up as a construction laborer lifting heavy loads and even as a mason to make ends meet. Photo Credit: Sanket Jain
Athlete Suraj Devtale who works as a home guard, has to double up as a construction laborer lifting heavy loads and even as a mason to make ends meet. Photo Credit: Sanket Jain /

Training for yourself

Devtale has been training under Parit for the past four years. “I became a home guard because of sir’s guidance,” he said proudly. Homeguard in India is a voluntary position where volunteers assist the police in maintaining law and order. Often home guards are deployed during crowded occasions like village fairs, pilgrimages, political rallies, and even during disasters like floods, earthquakes, and cyclones.

However, surviving on a home guard salary alone isn’t enough, as the work doesn’t come in often. So he doubles up as a mason, helping lift heavy loads on construction sites, and sometimes even as a farmworker.

After toiling for 10-12 hours daily, Devtale directly goes to the academy. “I train at least for three hours there from 6.30 p.m.,” he said. Earlier, he thought this would affect his work and training as he was out in the field for long hours. But, “What option do I have? I can’t stop working, and neither can I abandon training.”

This has come with its consequences, though. For example, this year, India witnessed the hottest March in 122 years. Between March 11 and May 18, 2022, 280 heat waves were reported. In some places, the temperature had reached 50 degrees celsius, and working out in these heat waves affected him. “Every day, I would feel dizzy after training,” he says.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report mentioned, “Extreme heat has negative impacts on mental health, well-being, life satisfaction, happiness, cognitive performance, and aggression.”

These heat waves killed at least 90 people in India and Pakistan. Scientists at the World Weather Attribution found that climate change made the heat waves in India and Pakistan 30 times more likely.

It was only after the monsoon rains did he start feeling better. A champion Kho-kho (traditional Indian tag game) player and sprinter, Devtale is unsure if he’ll be able to make a career in sports but is happy about whatever he has put on the field. “Every day when I train there for three hours, I feel like all my troubles have ended,” he said. “This is helping me recover.”

Healthcare worker Shubhangi Kamble, who’s from the nearby flood-affected Arjunwad village, said she has seen a rise in the stress levels amongst young people after the 2019 floods. “Every time I go for community health surveys, younger people tell me how they are always stressed.”

IPCC, for the first time, highlighted that climate change has severely affected mental health. It warned, “Mental health challenges, including anxiety and stress, are expected to increase under further global warming in all assessed regions, particularly for children, adolescents, elderly, and those with underlying health conditions.”

Climate scientist and contributor to the IPCC report, Roxy Koll from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), told FanSided, “For the current and the future challenges that we are undoubtedly going to have, we need adaptation measures and risk assessments. We haven’t assessed the risk; that is the problem.”

Apart from helping his family with farming, athlete Aditya Gurav works as an electrician to support his family. After finishing his day’s job, he goes to the academy to train. Photo Credit: Sanket Jain
Apart from helping his family with farming, athlete Aditya Gurav works as an electrician to support his family. After finishing his day’s job, he goes to the academy to train. Photo Credit: Sanket Jain /

Athlete Aditya Gurav, 19, had often heard his parents talk of the 2005 floods. However, it never made sense to him as he was merely two years old then. In 2019 and 2021, within 24 hours, he saw 12 feet-long sugarcane spread over 1.5 acres of land vanishing amidst the floodwater. The family collectively reported a loss of 400,000 pounds of sugarcane. Had the floods occurred two weeks later in his village Shirati, it would have fetched his family Rs 540,000 (about $6,800). “Instead, we incurred heavy losses as the water stayed in the field for 15 days, destroying the entire crop, which takes 15 months to grow.”

What followed next devastated his life. “We couldn’t cultivate a single crop for six months because of the irregular rainfall.” Meanwhile, he started working as an electrician at a nearby sugar factory which takes up 10 hours of his day.

While his topmost priority was ensuring everyone ate food twice a day, he could feel the pressure of not being able to fulfill his dream. Gurav, who is a sprinter, could neither focus nor compete. During this time, Devtale suggested he reach out to Parit.

For two years now, Gurav hasn’t missed a single workout session. “I saw a change in my mindset. Despite the floods, I am hopeful,” he said. For him, the biggest test was a month back when the water level started rising rapidly. “This time, I wasn’t worried.”

Because of the tremendous challenges, several rural athletes don’t have the luxury of specializing in one sport. Often, they prepare for army, police, or other Government exams where physical fitness matters.

“While running, all my negative thoughts and anxiety go away,” he said. “Throughout the day, we are worried about something or the other, but sports has come as a solution for us flood-affected athletes,” he says.

Kiran Bavadekar, 63, a retired champion wrestler from Kolhapur’s Nigave Dumala village, says he has observed a rapid increase in mental health issues amongst young athletes.

“They are caught in many problems like poverty, stiff competition in sports, inadequate resources, and much more. Floods amplify all these problems,” he said. Bavadekar, who has coached thousands of athletes, has observed an increase in resilience in those who consistently work out. “Sports do help heal.”

Parit knew only workouts wouldn’t help as the challenges were much bigger. “First, I ask them to meditate, and then I play inspirational videos too. My YouTube history is filled only with inspiring talks,” he said laughingly. “It has helped them all a lot,” he added.

Athlete Kirti Jangam from Aurwad village practicing battle ropes to build endurance. Photo Credit: Sanket Jain
Athlete Kirti Jangam from Aurwad village practicing battle ropes to build endurance. Photo Credit: Sanket Jain /

Long-distance runner Kirti Jangam from the flood-affected Aurwad village found a tremendous change in herself because of such videos. After the 2019 floods, Jangam, 21, was traumatized. “Seeing the water level rising, collapsing houses, and dying cattle, I was sick,” she remembers. Her stress kept rising with mental health facilities barely available in the rural areas. “Whenever I saw rain, I feared it would flood again.”

During this time, she also worked at a medical store, and that’s when she met Parit. “I heard he was a good sports teacher, and I spoke about my passion for long-distance running.”

Parit asked her to begin the training immediately.

“The first few days were quite difficult. I had never worked out in my life.”

Parit’s first step is building a consistent habit. “Once you show up daily, it becomes much easier to fine-tune the technique and help them improve,” he shared.

Parit helped her focus on long-distance running and designed the workouts accordingly. He then encouraged her to participate in several sports competitions held often at the village fairs. “In the past two years, I’ve won several races, and the prize money helps me sustain for a while,” she says.

Jangam, pursuing a commerce course, also saw her college grades improving. However, 16-hour work days have now become common. Juggling her academics, sports, and jobs, she cycles roughly 30 km daily. “Despite this, I don’t miss even a day of training.”

Along with Parit, Thorwat regularly visits students to learn more about their problems. “Whenever I do a workout incorrectly, he realizes something is bothering me. Instead of yelling like other teachers, he understands our problems and helps us find solutions,” she said.

Ranmale-Kakade explains that when people get a platform to vent out their difficult emotions, they feel relaxed. “Sports and physical activities done routinely are found to be effective whenever your mood is hampered,” she adds.

However, climate change is wreaking havoc in their lives. If there’s another flood, Jangam says her house will fall. Her modest brick house somehow survived the 2019 and 2021 floods, but the rising crack signaled a danger. “The house can fall anytime, but we don’t have enough money now to repair it.”

Working out at the academy comes to her mental rescue when such thoughts overburden her. “Though we don’t have a dedicated sports ground for training, this academy is nothing less than a meditation center for all of us,” says Jangam.

Several students I spoke to mentioned that Parit is an active, non-judgmental listener and is always ready to help. “He inspires us to become better,” says Kamble.

During the 2021 floods, Gurav remembers Parit telling him that we can’t fear the floods, especially when it’s becoming a recurring event. Often Parit takes the students to hills and mountains, where they practice rigorous workouts. “We don’t have any dedicated space for training, so we made nature our gym,” he said laughingly.

Moreover, Parit often sources the sports competitions scheduled across Maharashtra’s villages and asks his students to compete. “Winning any competition is always motivating and helps them put food on the table,” he said.

Over 100 students from more than 20 villages of Maharashtra’s Kolhapur and Sangli districts train under Yogesh Parit for free in Ghalwad’s Bajrangbali career academy daily. Photo Credit: Sanket Jain
Over 100 students from more than 20 villages of Maharashtra’s Kolhapur and Sangli districts train under Yogesh Parit for free in Ghalwad’s Bajrangbali career academy daily. Photo Credit: Sanket Jain /

Of the 1000 plus students Parit has trained so far, most are award winners at the local, district, state, or national level. “Even if the students can’t make a career in sports, that shouldn’t disappoint them further in life,” he believed. So, Parit inspires them to keep working out. This also opens avenues to become forest officers, police inspectors, and army officials and join other institutions where physical fitness plays a significant role. Today, 150 of his alums work as Government officials, not just helping them come out of poverty but has also enabled them to lead a happy life.

One of Parit’s students, Trupti Dhangar, 21, from the flood-affected Kavatheguland village, won a gold medal in pole vaulting at the national level this year. She will now compete at the international level.

Just like these athletes, life for Parit isn’t easy either. He leaves home at 5 a.m. to teach at a sports academy in a village, 12 miles from his home. He returns by 8.30 a.m. and then goes to a nearby private school where he works as a sports teacher for seven hours. After returning, he trains the students in Ghalwad for another three hours.

For Parit and his associates, the biggest challenge is inadequate resources. In a single 10×10 feet room where these students keep their resources, there’s a small poster in the Hindi language that reads, “Yaha daudna fashion he (Running is fashion here).”

For these students, Parit has indeed made running a fashion that is helping them recover from trauma. “People live with trauma for their entire lives, and I wanted to end this using sports,” says Parit.

More. Why We Play. light

Why We Play features stories about the power of sports to bring us together, overcome obstacles, make positive change and reach everyone. Read more here.