By Debadutta Parida*
In early May 2020, a low pressure developed in the Bay of Bengal eastwards near Sri Lanka. The formation rapidly intensified into a tropical depression within two days, and later into an ‘extremely severe cyclonic storm’. At the same time, the sea temperature over the Bay of Bengal was an unprecedented 3 degrees higher than its historically natural temperature of 31 degrees Celsius for May. This rise in sea temperature favoured the cyclone formation greatly. By the next day, it became a super cyclone, named as ‘Cyclone Amphan’; and was approaching the Bay of Bengal coastline with wind speed above 160 kilometres per hour. Nearly 40 million people in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were at risk from the cyclone. When the cyclone hit the coast of West Bengal, nearly 128 lives were lost (98 in India, 26 in Bangladesh and 4 in Sri Lanka); while the financial loss was quantified around US $ 13.2 billion. Events of this magnitude and intensity are not uncommon in this part of the world. However, the sudden shift in frequency of their occurrence is slowly triggering a much-needed discourse around how climate change is impacting a rise in cyclonic storm risks in Odisha, along with its associated effects in land in the form of heatwaves and flooding.
A long history of disasters
Odisha’s geographic location along the 450 kilometres of coastline perpetually washed by the Bay of Bengal in India has meant that the state has constantly been at risk from multiple hazards, especially in the form of cyclones, droughts and floods. Historical inscriptions in Hatigumpha describe how a major cyclonic event had devastating effects of Kalinganagari, which was then repaired by Kharavela during his first year of reign. Since the past hundred years, Odisha has been disaster-affected for nearly ninety-five years, with floods and droughts occurring for more than 80 years in the past millennium.
The increase in frequency and intensity of cyclones, however, is a recent phenomenon. This is a matter of interest and concern for climate experts. Odisha was hit by nine major cyclones in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1990s did not see an increase in terms of frequency, yet a single major event (the 1999 super cyclone) of high intensity devastated the state, both ecologically, materially and psychologically. Nearly 10,000 lives were lost (unofficial figures suggest nearly 15000 deaths), 400,000 livestock died, and nearly 5 million farmers lost their livelihood. In the past decade, Odisha has been hit by three major cyclones (Phailin, Fani and Amphan), wherein the Cyclone Fani caused major damage in 2019. The rising uncertainty around climate extreme events coupled with a messed up monsoon in the state is a sign for an ominous future.
An ‘unwanted’ trigger for policy shift
The 1999 super cyclone was a turning point in the state’s attitude towards cyclones, and disasters overall. The state has been proactive in terms of its disaster management action in the past two decades. The recent cyclonic events have resulted in near-zero casualties, while there is still a long way to go in terms of improving the ability to reduce the destruction of property and infrastructure. The state has built nearly 260 flood shelters and 160 cyclone shelters with an investment of more than 2000 million INR. These shelters have been helpful in successfully evacuating lakhs of affected people during a disaster event; while on other times are used as schools. These actions have earned recognition and global attention from many significant international agencies and platforms.
Short-sighted policy actions won’t do! Need for a serious climate change discourse
What was historically perceived as natural disasters, is beginning to be understood more holistically within the wider context of climate change and its many induced ecological impacts, often exacerbated by multiple anthropogenic activities and socio-economic changes. With all the developments that have occurred to tackle disasters, the recent cyclonic events and public health crisis due to Covid-19 pandemic have exposed that it is simply not enough to plan or create policies for single risks such as cyclones or floods. For example, during the evacuation efforts before cyclone Amphan, it was widely reported that the existing cyclone shelters were being used only up to half of their regular capacity, owing to social distancing measures. There should be now a realisation that a evacuation-rescue-relief model is too short-sighted, and needs to be complemented with long term strategies to improve overall socio-economic conditions of people in general so that they are better equipped to deal with future events of this magnitude.
What is needed for the future is for communities in cities, small towns and villages to come forward and deliberate over what effects of climate change they are experiencing. For example, the events related to ‘disappearance’ of five of the seven villages of Satabhaya village in Kendrapada district to the advancing sea is well known, yet this escapes our daily public discourse. As a community, society and a state, we must bring climate change to the centre of our public and media discourse. We must put all our energy to empower local communities to tackle the rising effects of climate change. The effects of climate change are not a future probability. They are already unfolding in front of our eyes. The so-called ‘dramatic’ predictions for 2100 or 2050 are not something to be apathetic about. The generation that will see the catastrophic effects of climate change and global warming in 2050 is already born now. We must act, sensibly and swiftly.
*The author is an architect, urban and rural planning researcher and educator by profession. At present, he is researching the role of people, power and politics in climate action in cities in Odisha. He can be reached at [email protected]
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.