Cyclones &Climate Change
By Dhurjati Mukherjee
The fury and devastation of cyclones is back. First Tauktae and then Yaas have stretched the affected States’ administration workload, already battling the pandemic. Though by now a common phenomenon in India, cyclones in recent years, have intensified, particularly in the Eastern coast. Other thanpreparing an integrated coastal management plan, there is need to put sharper focus on climate vulnerability and make updated assessment.
Last year, super cyclone Amphan ravaged through Odisha and Bengal followed by Fani, causing losses amounting to thousands of crore. In fact, Amphan was predicted as a super cyclone, the second in the Bay of Bengal since the 1999 Odisha super cyclone over the sea. But the devastation would have been severe as Amphan actually lost some steam while over the sea and turned into a severe cyclonic storm when it made landfall.
According to the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), given the increase in frequency and intensity of such extreme climate events, India needs to build climate resilience at multiple levels. As per its analysis, after 2005, the yearly average of Indian districts affected by cyclones tripled and the frequency doubled. In the last decade alone, 258 districts were affected.
This year, the first cyclone to hit India was Tauktae, which was at its most intense near the Mumbai coast before it propelled towards Gujarat. According to experts, an extreme weather event of this nature portends a warning about the likely consequences of ignoring climate change. This is the third year in a row that cyclones in the Arabian Sea have menaced the west coast. Nisarga in 2020 even made landfall near Alibaug in Maharashtra while in 2019, Vayu moved parallel to the shoreline. The recent frequency of cyclones, was a clear sign of temperatures rising in the Arabian Sea. These low-pressure systems are formed when warm, moist air rises up from the sea surface.
Another severe cyclone Yaaswas witnessed on May 26 which caused massive losses to Odisha and coastal areas of Bengal. The inundation as also the cyclones have had a disastrous effect with nearly 156 km embankments damaged in four districts of Bengal, not only destroying huts but will eventually impact agricultural crops.
Both these two cyclones, according to meteorologists, were preceded by very high surface temperature, reaching 310C-320C. While Tauktae spent several days in the Arabian Sea where it could draw the heat and moisture continuously, reaching peak intensity of over 220 km/hr. , in the case of Yaas, it was formed in north of Bay of Bengal and the travel distance to landfall was shorter.
Historically, waters off the western coast have experienced fewer storms than Bay of Bengal and typically weaker. Obviously, the rapid warming of the Arabian Sea isleading to not just more cyclones but also more extreme rain events. Such warm ocean conditions have witnessed rapid intensification of cyclones, according to a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM).
Recently the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNIDR) in consultation with the Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) in a study found that India suffered economic losses of $80 billion during the 20-year period of 1998 to 2017. It has been ranked among world’s top four countries in absolute economic losses, the others being the US, China and Japan.
Globally, disaster losses during the period have been estimated at around $ 2.908 trillion. These losses increased by over 120 per cent in the last 20 years compared to the preceding two decades (1978-1997). And if losses from climate related disaster are taken into account, these have gone up by 151 per cent. India has been found to be the worst-sufferer of disaster related deaths and economic loses. Thousands of lives are lost and hundreds of crore worth of properties destroyed every year, though not all of these are reported, a fact authenticated by the UN report.
According to a report by Christian Aid in December 2020, floods and Cyclone Amphan accounted for maximum loss of lives globally due to climate change triggered events that year. In fact, Amphan was the costliest cyclone of the year, displacing 4.9 million people and putting an economic impact of over $13 billion (Rs 96,000 crore).
One may mention here that the Eastern region including Jharkhand, Mizoram, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Bihar and Bengal is ‘highly vulnerable’ to climate change, according to a recent climate vulnerability assessment report, released by the Science &Technology Ministry. It noted that Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand have, in fact, over 60% districts in the category of ‘highly vulnerable’. The report titled ‘Climate Vulnerability Assessment for Adaptation Planning in India Using a CommonFramework’ noted that all districts or States are vulnerable but some are relatively more vulnerable than others, requiring prioritised adaptation interventions to face the impact of climate change such as extreme weather events, stress on water resources, soil degradation and desertification.
Cyclones and floods have become a regular feature in the country. The effects of such national disasters are indeed quite severe, specially those residing in the coastal areas for quite a few months. While, no doubt, disaster management by the government has improved significantly over the years, tackling severe cyclones is somewhat limited to relief and rehabilitation, even preparedness before such disasters. Moreover, as is the case with most disasters, the promised aid rarely reaches the affected and they continue to suffer over a period of time
Apart from loss of lives, which has been drastically brought down, the economic loss continues unabated. And obviously, the poor and neglected sections are the worst sufferers of cyclones. Experts are of the opinion that there is need for an integrated coastal management plan with a long term perspective, primarily aimed at raising secure embankments. Take the case of Netherlands, which is surrounded by seas, but manages to be secure and has three-structured barrages (or bandhs)
It is important to keep in mind that with global warming increasing at a rapid pace, seas are found to warm up seven times more than surface land, leading to higher occurrences of cyclones and massive flooding. It is critical that the suggestion of the CEO of CEEW be given a serious thought i.e. the creation of a national climate risk commission comprising stakeholders with statutory authority and publish periodic climate risk assessments, apart from undertaking other responsibilities. Unless there is an action plan of tackling such disasters in the coming decade, lives and livelihoods of those living in and around coastal areas are likely to suffer severely in the coming years.
One may criticise the present government but there is no denying that previous governments record has not been any better. However, with cyclones ravaging States with much ferocity, disaster mitigation has finally been taken up as a professional exercise at the national level. There has been progress in disaster risk reduction wherein largescale recue and relief operations are being undertaken to evacuate people to safe areas. However, relief and rehabilitation still does continue to be major primary work. Now is obviously the time to allocate substantial resources towards building embankments and concrete barrages. — INFA