Need to reassess cyclone discourse
Now that Cyclone Phailin has battered the east coast of India, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake, we need to seriously rethink our attitude and approach to the so-called natural disasters. While the evacuation endeavours that resulted in minimal loss of lives are commendable, and accurate weather forecast that allowed for relocation of people in time is worthy of praise, nevertheless, the humongous damage to property and infrastructure is something that the state governments in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha need to grapple with. So, even though faster rehabilitation has been emphasised by prominent leaders, including Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, several hundreds of crores would now have to be redirected at ‘managing the disaster’ and mitigating its protracted consequences. Hence, rebuilding houses and hamlets along the coastline, particularly in Gopalpur which bore the maximum brunt of nature’s wrath, would not be enough – the state must also start investing in how to cyclone-proof the infrastructure which are close to the sea. Evidently, if preliminary reports are to be believed, over 500,000 hectares of land have been impacted by Phailin, with several rivers swelling up because of the resulting torrential rains, hovering perilously close to the danger levels. Over 200,000 houses have been damaged, and over eight million people have been affected by its ravages. Sure that flood warnings, relief and rescue operations, getting back the transport, communication and power services online are some of the preoccupations that would keep the state authorities busy in the coming days and weeks, but what needs to be reconfigured is this: are we doing enough to keep our cyclone-prone coastal areas safe and strong?
Unfortunately, Phailin turned out to be great television entertainment (something that is hardly unexpected) with every TV channel stationing five or six correspondents at strategic impact points to ensure maximum ‘coverage.’ Much like Hurricane Sandy, that struck the US east coast last year, cyclones and superstorms have been reduced to prime time shows, and even though this time around timely evacuation toned down the level of shrillness of the TV debates, pertinent and difficult questions involving the non-sustainability of several of the industrial projects in this sensitive ecological zones were not being asked. With Phailin now almost equaling Hurricane Katrina, possibly setting record for the most intense cyclone in Indian Ocean’s maritime history, which is peppered with devastating cyclones, such the Great Orissa Cyclone of 1999 that killed almost 10,000 people, we need to comprehend why high-intensity cyclones are becoming ever-more frequent and more destructive than before. Evidently, deforestation in the interiors and global warming from industrial emissions and pollutions, along with other factors causing climate change, have led to an alarming increase in the cyclonic formations, especially in low-lying regions that are faced with threats of becoming submerged in the wake of rising sea levels. While the fact that despite Phailin’s intensity, the casualty is at bare minimum, as per current reports, the trail of destruction not only imperils the region’s economy, with hundreds of thousands now reduced to being ecological refugees, but also the environment and ecosystems, with reports of saline ingress coming in, threatening fresh water life forms. Hence, the idea is to not just reassess the immediate impact and the cost of expensive rehabilitation, but also to understand how to tackle the long-term ecological and infrastructural issues and arriving at a sustainable middle path to address both.