Mass evacuation saved lives but not livelihood

Starting over Cyclone Phailin has destroyed more than Rs 2.5 lakh homes in Odisha
Starting over Cyclone Phailin has destroyed more than Rs 2.5 lakh homes in Odisha. Photo: AFP

A day after Cyclone Phailin lashed the Odisha coast, full-throated praise for the Naveen Patnaik government on minimising loss of human life through mass evacuation morphed into angry protests by the survivors who lost pretty much everything except their lives to the disaster.

The 1999 super-cyclone killed more than 10,000 people in Odisha. Cyclone Phailin’s death toll did not reach triple digits. While the wind speed turned out to be less than feared, the state claimed to have evacuated more than 9 lakh people in three days. The morning after, Patnaik was a national hero. But reality sunk in too soon.

After Odisha was caught hopelessly unprepared in 1999, the Odisha State Disaster Mitigation Authority (OSDMA) was set up in 2000. “During the past two centuries,” wrote Wunderground meteorologist Jeff Masters, “42 percent of the earth’s tropical cyclone-associated deaths have occurred in Bangladesh, and 27 percent have occurred in India.” Given that 26 out of the 35 deadliest tropical cyclones in history have been reported in the Bay of Bengal, the formation of the OSDMA was a late but welcome move.

In the next few years, the state government built 500 cyclone shelters along the coastline, thanks to generous Central funds and World Bank aid. Besides, points out Cuttack-based environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty, most coastal villages benefited from the Indira Awas Yojana and only temporary Nolia beach huts have remained kuchcha for obvious reasons.

Unlike 1999, what helped this time, besides the shelters, was the timely and effective warning from the Met department based on tested models. The changing intensity, the timing and, most importantly, the landfall location were all predicted fairly accurately to help the state and the National Disaster Management Authority deal with the onslaught.

While no administration can stave off the fury of such natural calamities, preparedness can minimise damage. But preparedness does not begin and end with merely constructing shelters and rushing people there when a cyclone strikes. Unfortunately, apart from the actionable warning from the Met department, that is all our disaster management apparatus achieved since 1999.

Over the past decade, the OSDMA did precious little to identify areas vulnerable to inundation at different surge and wind speed levels. Since the vulnerable areas along the coastline are at different elevations, such a study could have helped the administration identify specific target areas. Instead, last week’s evacuation drive involved herding all and sundry with a “move or perish” threat.

Of course, it saved thousands of lives.

But a targeted evacuation at a smaller scale would have allowed people time and space to minimise other losses. Their livestock could have been salvaged. Evacuated families could have carried more assets to safety. The relief and rehabilitation operation to follow would have been less difficult, faster and more effective.

“In fact, the evacuation figure (9-10 lakh) itself is suspect. There are about 300 cyclone shelters and, say, a similar number of school and other pucca buildings. Do you see 1,500-2,000 people in each camp? This ‘world record’ will make a lot of money. On paper, you need 500 tonnes of grain to feed 10 lakh people twice a day,” says a local official handling relief work in Ganjam district.

Whatever be the actual numbers, the mass scale of evacuation soon turned out to be unmanageable. It did not help that officials shifted focus to facilitating the chief minister’s visit too soon. So many hungry, angry survivors blocked Patnaik’s cavalcade that he decided to fly back to Bhubaneswar.

Already, Phailin-induced floods had caught the Balasore and Mayurbhanj administrations off guard. Nearly 3 lakh stranded people are now banking on the army and navy to perform the rescue act.

It is one thing to rush lakhs of people to crowded shelters for a night; quite another to help them return home and resume their lives as before. In 1999, more than 15 lakh people lost their homes and at least 4 lakh farm animals were left behind to die. The total economic loss was an estimated $2.5 billion. Phailin turned out to be weaker but the true extent of the loss of livelihood caused by the surge of seawater into agricultural land is yet to unfold.

While restricting itself to building shelters, the state government allowed illegal shrimp farms to destroy precious mangrove cover, the first line of defence on the coast against a cyclonic surge. Promises of massive mangrove plantations following the 1999 disaster remained promises. The funds for mangrove plantation idled as the state failed to acquire suitable coastal land from shrimp farms and other private owners and encroachers.

Deforestation of the coastal mangroves was also responsible for the high death toll in 1999 as — according to a 2009 study by Institute of Economic Growth and Duke University — “villages with wider mangroves between them and the coast experienced significantly fewer deaths than ones with narrower or no mangroves”. Few remember that though the super-cyclone lashed 250 km of Odisha’s coastline, it was only in a severely deforested zone — about 100 km between Basudevpur in Bhadrak district and Astarang in Puri district — that the high tidal surge moved inland and killed thousands of people.

Even within that 100-km devastation zone, Kendrapara suffered the least damage thanks to its relatively high mangrove cover. The above-mentioned study (S Das and JR Vincent, 2009) concluded that “the average opportunity cost of saving a life by retaining mangroves was Rs 11.7 million per life saved” which was less than the value of life in India estimated by different studies to be between Rs 13.7-60.6 million per avoided death.

While mangroves fight sea surges, sand dunes work as natural wind barriers. In the late 1970s, the state started flattening sand dunes, many rising up to 75 feet, for beach plantation. Rows of casuarinas that replaced the dunes faced their first test in 1999 and snapped like matchsticks within minutes. In 2011, the World Bank-funded Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project reported that 187 km of Odisha coastline was facing erosion. While the districts of Puri and Jagatsinghpur are the most affected, erosion is obvious to the north of Gopalpur, Paradip and Anantpur ports and to the south of Dhamra and Astarang ports.

A day after flaunting minimal loss of human life, Odisha also reported loss of paddy crop in 5 lakh hectares, which is 20 percent of the total area under paddy cultivation in the state. It is unclear how many of these fields suffered long-term damage. “The agricultural land is unprotected in the absence of natural barriers,” points out Mohanty. “Loss of livelihood due to saline ingress and sand casting by tidal surges is the real issue now. How will the survivors fend for themselves for the next 3-4 years before the land becomes cultivable again?”

Be it the 2011 earthquake in Sikkim, frequent massive landslides in Uttarakhand or cyclones in Odisha, the warnings have failed to trigger any correction in our blueprint for development. Multiple dams are still coming up on every Himalayan river. Along the Odisha coast, the state has resolved to set up a dozen new ports. This will flatten more sand dunes, destroy natural tree cover, including mangroves, and trigger heavy beach erosion.

In the process, one of the world’s most populous and cyclone-prone coasts is being laid bare, rendered more vulnerable than ever. The next time a cyclone intensifies on the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal, absence of natural barriers will again force a defenceless Odisha to scramble for cover. Fortifications may again save lives, only to leave survivors without livelihood. “Unless,” winces a former BJD MLA, “we learn to shift our cropland to cyclone shelters.”


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