The worst is over with regard to Cyclone Nisarga. There will be other cyclones after Nisarga, though. With the advent of climate change, tropical cyclones are not going anywhere, rather they are poised to become more frequent and accompanied by increased intensity. In this regard, it is inevitable that we find ways to live with them while preventing them from being a mere meteorological hazard to becoming an unmanageable national disaster.
Take the case of Cyclone Idai that hit Zimbabwe and Mozambique last year. The tropical cyclone made landfall over the Mozambique coast, on 14th March 2019, before slowly moving to hit Chimanimani in Mozambique. Idai followed a more destructive yet similar trajectory to Cyclone Nisarga, changing direction and decreasing in strength.
When tropical cyclones make landfall, their potential destructive force in terms of wind speed and amount of deposited rainfall is severely curtailed as it moves inland due to a decrease in ‘fuel input to the cyclone engine’. Although the enhanced smoothness and evaporation from the sea surface waters increase its strength, the land surface friction and reduced surface evaporation from the relatively dry land tend to suffocate the cyclone, thereby killing it gradually.
Cyclone Idai revealed the extent to which existing rural and urban physical infrastructure, as well as that which connects cities and countries, was susceptible to severe climate change-induced weather events. As is often the case with disasters of this magnitude, ports, roads, railways, pipelines, and transmission lines were severely damaged. Persistent heavy rains caused mudslides and virtually cut off a small town in eastern Zimbabwe.
The broader impacts of climate change on infrastructure are being recognised in Africa from Cyclone Idai. The reduced capacity of hydropower dams, shortened road maintenance cycles, and disruption to critical services due to damaged bridges and buildings can have major impacts on a country’s economy and wellbeing of its people. The transboundary nature of much of the infrastructure damaged by Cyclone Idai, including pipelines and roads, illustrates that a regional or transboundary approach to climate-resilient infrastructure is required for long-term resilience and securing viable energy networks and transportation systems for goods and people.
On the other end of the spectrum is Cyclone Nargis back in 2008, considered the worst natural disaster in the living memory of Myanmar. It made landfall on the night of 2nd May 2008, in the Ayeyarwady Delta region of Myanmar. The accompanying tidal surge caused widespread devastation and loss of more than 140,000 lives and displaced more than 800,000 people.
Hundreds of thousands of families whose livelihoods were based on farming, fishing and small trade were pushed to the brink of economic disaster. Myanmar is used to annual floods and cyclones but the government and the humanitarian community were not prepared for a disaster of such scale.
There is a great body of evidence regarding the role of mangroves in providing refuge from a cyclone’s impacts and in protecting lives. Survival rates after Cyclone Nargis were higher in villages surrounded by mangrove vegetation than in villages without forest cover. Most villagers indicated that they saved themselves from tidal waves by hanging in mangrove trees overnight. In many cases, people were swept for a few kilometres by the tidal surge until they grabbed hold of mangrove vegetation.
The importance of mangroves – or their lack – in such a disaster was seen after Cyclone Hudhud, a severe cyclonic storm in Andhra Pradesh in the year 2014. Originating in the Andaman Sea around October 6, it crossed the coastline near Visakhapatnam and left the city devastated. Mangroves and casuarina plantations along the coast and the thick tree cover on the hills had protected the city from the vagaries of cyclones in the past.
However, indiscriminate denudation, in defiance of environmental laws in force and the Visakhapatnam Urban Development Authority’s mandatory Master Plan, rendered the city vulnerable to Cyclone Hudhud. Conserving mangroves, raising casuarina and other durable species of plantations along the coastline and regulating quarrying over the hills, are therefore necessary if we are to protect the land from cyclones in future.
As with Cyclone Nargis, the most severely affected areas illustrate the interdependent linkages between the environment, livelihoods and disaster vulnerability. The driving forces of environmental degradation in the Delta and in the Yangon Division were closely related to people’s livelihoods and their natural resource management practices as well as the way in which government policies are implemented.
Poverty was the root cause of environmental degradation in Nargis-affected areas. The limited ability of local people to appropriately manage their natural resources was motivated by their struggle for survival in what has become an increasingly over-exploited environment. The vicious circle of unsustainable natural resource management results in environmental degradation, forcing households to over-extract resources just to meet daily subsistence needs. This leads to a downward spiral of dwindling resources, jeopardising food security and livelihoods.
Cyclones are unpredictable. Being prepared for an unexpected emergency is much better than improvising for disaster response teams at the national and state levels and for humanitarian organisations. Staff can be trained by exposing them to various emerging emergencies through secondment, job shadowing, and leading on emergency response. It is important to build ‘managing emergencies’ in personal development plans for local staff in disaster-prone areas.
The number of people affected by a cyclone is in direct proportion to the preparedness of the community to the impending disaster.