World’s most vulnerable coast is still the least prepared

Cyclone Phailin hit the Odisha coast on 12 October night. Photo: PTI
Cyclone Phailin hit Odisha coast on 12 October night. Photo: PTI

The 1999 super-cyclone killed more than 10,000 people in Odisha. So far, cyclone Phailin’s death toll is yet to reach double digits. While the wind speed turned out to be less severe than feared, the state evacuated nearly nine lakh people, in three days. Remarkable feat, yes, but this does not tell the entire story.

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

To be fair, the state government built hundreds of cyclone shelters along the coast which served as community centres during normal times. For example, the one in Dhinkia, the heart of the anti-Posco movement, even became the hub of the resistance movement. But the government’s preparatory measures ended with the construction spree. While no government can stave off the fury of such natural calamities, preparedness can minimise damage. And preparedness does not begin or end with merely rushing people to shelters.

Over the last 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 provided the administration with specific details of target areas at a particular threat level. In the absence of such specific ground data, the evacuation drive involved herding all and sundry in a panic mode.

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 as well. Their livestock could have been protected better. Evacuated families could have carried more assets to safety. The relief and rehab work to follow would have been less difficult, faster and more effective.

It is one thing to rush lakhs of people to crowded shelters for a night; quite another to help them return home and build from scratch. 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 its damage will unfold only in the next few days.

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. Lofty sand dunes, rising up to 75 feet, worked as natural wind barriers but were flattened for beach plantation. Rows of casurinas that replaced the dunes faced their first test in 1999. The cyclone snapped the trees like matchsticks.

Deforestation of the coastal mangroves in the storm surge zone was a prime reason for the high death toll in 1999 as “villages with wider mangroves between them and the coast experienced significantly fewer deaths than ones with narrower or no mangroves (Das and Vincent, 2009). Few remembers that though the cyclone hit over 250 km of Orissa’s coastline, it was only through a severely deforeseted zone – about 100 km between Basudevpur in Bhadrak district and Astarang in Puri district – that the high tidal surge could move inland and kill thousands of people.

Be it the 2011 earthquake in Sikkim, repeated floods and landslides in Uttarakhand or cyclones in Odisha, the warnings have failed to force any course correction in our development plans. Multiple dams are still coming up on every Himalayan river. Along the Odisha coast, the state is 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.

Next time a cyclone intensifies on the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal, business as usual will again force a defenceless Odisha to scramble for cover. One of the world’s most populous and cyclone-prone coasts will be laid bare, more vulnerable than ever due to destruction of its natural defences. Not all future storms will be as sparing as Phailin.


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