Simi Mehta, Ritika Gupta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Anshula Mehta, Mahima Kapoor

While the country was managing the COVID-19 outbreak, India endured devastating cyclones on both the east and west coasts. Rescue and relief operations, along with adhering to the COVID-19 protocols and administering vaccinations became pertinent tasks. To encourage the discussion on the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and cyclones that wreaked havoc during it, the National Institute of Disaster Management and IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute jointly organized a panel discussion on Double Disaster: Covid & Cyclone – Impact and Way Forward.

cyclone

The event was moderated and hosted by Dr. Simi MehtaCEO & Editorial Director, IMPRI. Dr. Mehta underlined the characteristics of cyclones Tauktae and Yaas and estimated the losses to be about 5 billion US dollars for both. The economic cost of climate change can be identified by the ever-growing losses inflicted by cyclones, especially when we account for mortalities.

Further, a snippet of the Prime Minister’s 77th Mann Ki Baat was played. The transcript of the same is as follows:

“My dear countrymen, Namaskar. We are seeing how the country is fighting against Covid-19 with all her might. This has been the biggest pandemic in the last hundred years and during this very pandemic, India has confronted many a natural disaster with fortitude. Meanwhile, there were cyclones Amphan and Nisarg. Many states had floods; there were many minor and major earthquakes; there were landslides. Just recently, in the past ten days, the country faced two major cyclones – cyclone Taukte on the west coast and cyclone Yaas on the east coast. Both these cyclones affected a number of States. The country and her people fought them with all their strength, ensuring minimum loss of life.

Through our experience now as compared to earlier times, we are able to save the lives of more people. Under these trying and extraordinary calamitous circumstances, people of all these cyclones- affected States have displayed courage; people have faced this moment of crisis with immense patience and discipline. I wish to commend all citizens respectfully and wholeheartedly.

People who led rescue and relief work deserve more appreciation than what can be expressed. I salute all of them. The Centre, State governments, and local administration have come together to face this calamity. My heart goes out to all the people who’ve lost their near and dear ones. Let us all firmly stand by those who have borne the brunt of this disaster.”

Strengthening Rescue and Relief Mechanisms

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Maj. Gen Manoj K BindalExecutive Director, NIDM, elucidated the gravity of the multi-hazard scenario. Further, he listed a set of pressing issues- last-mile connectivity, which is needed for transportation of people to safe spaces, need for volunteers to learn how to put forth their point to people who are apprehensive about the efforts by the governments. Thus, socio-behavioral change is of paramount importance. In addition to this, strong public healthcare systems, which could further be reinforced by interventions by the Centre, are important. Comprehensive and inclusive engagement boosts confidence and a sense of community among people, which helps in dealing with crises. Hotlines need to be accessible and robust and are in need of reconstruction to be functional.

IGOs, NGOs, and SHGs (Self Help Groups) need to be incorporated and should not be looked at as competitors but friends in distress. To do so, the issue of lack of platforms has to be addressed. Agriculture, ports, transportation and utility sectors suffered the most during the cyclones. Thus, it is desired to epitomize the Kerala and Orissa models. It is essential to leverage technological advancements, capacity building of multi-stakeholders, and formal training with case studies.

Man-made Tragedies

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The discussion was continued by Prof Anil K Gupta, Head ECDRM, NIDM, who called the situation of Double Disaster a “period of complex emergency”. He emphasized that we are not just grappling with the coronavirus and cyclones, but heat waves, droughts, forest fires, and industrial accidents as well. Global heating is contributing to forest fires, and the resulting fires are stoking global heating. The Forest Survey of India released a report analyzing areas in India prone to fire in 2020. Out of the total 7,12,249 square km of forest cover, 1,52,421 square km (21.40 percent) is either highly or extremely fire-prone. The forests of Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Manipur, Odisha, and Madhya Pradesh are the most vulnerable. 

Toxic gas leak at LG Polymers factory in Visakhapatnam, boiler explosion at Yashashvi Rasayan Private Limited in Gujarat, two boiler explosions in Tamil Nadu, a toxic gas leak at a paper mill in Chhattisgarh are a few tragedies to give reference. Additionally, the coal mining sector has reported some accidents as well. This is sabotaging our plans to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, which are relevant to livelihoods and food insecurities, and both structural and non-structural damage.

The ability to rebound within no time after disasters minimizes the impact of disasters like the above-mentioned on the affected people. There is an exigency for mechanisms to be in place before disasters occur. This is to ensure that the recovery process is effectively conceived, initiated, and managed in a timely manner, followed by loss assessment, and identification and prioritization of recovery activities.

A Scientific Perspective

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Ms Sunitha Devi, Operational Meteorologist, and Weather forecaster, India Meteorological Department, New Delhi, illustrated the frequency of cyclones rising from The Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, with the ratio at 4:1. The latter has a tendency to move in the North-West and West directions, with minor landfalls over regions of West Bengal.

She highlighted some work done by IMD, including the information broadcasts two weeks before the genesis of a natural disaster, focused forecasts, and coordination with emergency units. Some recalibrated efforts are public education and outreach systems put in place by the IMD to educate the people about torrential rainfalls and disaster management.

She mentioned that the rainfall during the time of cyclone Yaas was about 28cm in the districts of Orissa. This, warning dissemination began in early May through social media apps (The Ministry of Earth Sciences India has launched a new mobile application called “Mausam” for the Indian Meteorological Department which will help users track weather updates and also bring in the enhanced forecast as well as warning services from the government), the reliability and remarkable accuracy of intensity predictions of which are proven through numerical and mathematical models.

In Odisha’s Balasore district, officials began moving people in cars and boats from low-lying coastal areas to shelters at government buildings, schools, and other sturdy structures. Pregnant women and children were sent to government hospitals and fishermen shifted boats to safety inland.

Impact of Cyclones

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Dr Roxy Mathew Koll, Scientist, Centre for Climate Change Research, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, directed the focus towards the lost biodiversity, rehabilitation of people from high-risk areas, women empowerment, learnings from the disasters which have already happened and alerting the general public.

There were other cyclones that did not generate the level of attention that Amphan and Yaas received. Cyclone Nivar affected Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in November 2020. Although no loss of life was registered, it damaged horticultural crops spread over 23000 acres. Cyclone Burevi affected Tamil Nadu and Kerala in India. It followed the Nivar Cyclone and originated in the southwest region of the Bay of Bengal in December 2020. By deploying hazard mapping, one can predict the vulnerable areas affected by the storms. It maps the pattern of old cyclones using their wind speed, areas affected, flooding frequency, among other factors.

There is also a need for state-level preparedness to penetrate deeper levels of the underdeveloped areas. Frontline workers are working remarkably and should be given monetary incentives and paid leaves.

Disaster Preparedness

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Dr Sreeja Unni, Hazard Analyst, Kerala State Disaster Management Authority, gave insights into the state of Kerala. She emphasized that the stakeholder coordination and collaboration between labor and transportation departments fetched us more benefits during the peaks of COVID-19 than we could gauge.

She mentioned there were actually 5 cyclones in the North-Indian Ocean and 4 depressions in the neighbouring areas in last year alone. These disasters have a cascading impact. The infrastructural failures were huge, for instance, the lack of medical oxygen. Inequalities were exacerbated when fishermen folks lost their homes, with their densely populated localities decimated. There is improper and sustainable usage of fallow land. The state hospitals, which are at their maximum capacity, could collapse anytime if inadequate preparedness persists.

The Kerala government had launched the updated ‘Orange Book of Disaster Management’ featuring standard operating procedures and the action to be taken in the event of any natural disasters, among other guidelines.

Costs of Climate Change

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Dr. C.S. Bahinipati, Assistant Professor (Economics), Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Tirupati, with his presentation, informed about the social impact of these catastrophes, including the destruction of roads, breaking down of essential food items’ transport systems, and the rising number of lives at stake.  India is projected to lose 5.8% of working hours in 2030, a productivity loss equivalent to 34 million full-time jobs. This is because either it would be too hot to work or workers would have to work at a slower pace, impacting the agriculture and construction sectors, as predicted by ILO.

The gravity of climate change is humongous. When we venture into the domain of psychosocial impacts, children are the worse affected. The underreporting of deaths is another issue, as people who are in need of government assistance and benefits from welfare schemes do not get it. We need stubborn aircraft, cloud physics experiments, better research, and development initiatives to beat the condition of being “data-sparse”.

The panel discussion was concluded with policy recommendations, the issues of flattening funds, increasing operation costs were highlighted to demand better monitoring systems. 

Acknowledgement: Priyanshi Arora is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

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