High water: on growing challenge from tropical cyclones

India must create a social safety net to manage the fallout of cyclonic storms

September 28, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 01:40 pm IST

Tropical cyclones laden with moisture and accumulated energy pose a growing challenge, as they have the propensity to inflict heavy damage to lives and property. As the annual monsoon retreats, thousands are left assessing the impact of cyclone Gula b, a rare event for September, on coastal Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and other areas inland. This weather system, with a gusting wind speed of 70 knots at landfall, appears to have been less intimidating than cyclones Yaas and Tauktae, although it continued to keep the seas unsafe for fishermen all along the coastline north of Andhra Pradesh, after moving overland. There have been some distressing deaths and inevitable material losses for many, and the focus must now be on relief and rehabilitation; in the recovery phase of COVID-19, the weather system has upended life for many, disrupting key inter-State road links and leading to the cancellation or diversion of several trains. The imperative is to reach out to those affected by Gulab with food, shelter and health-care support, deploying the many administrative capabilities acquired during the pandemic with the same alacrity. The welcome concern for public health and economic security must lead to stronger institutional responses to natural disasters too.

The northern Indian Ocean, of which the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal are a part, experiences only a minority of tropical storms annually, at about 7% of worldwide events, but their destructive impact on the subcontinent is severe due to a dense population and poor capacity to absorb large quantities of rainfall dumped in a short period over cities and towns. Financial arrangements to insure the population against material losses also remain weak, and as the experience in West Bengal with cyclone Amphan demonstrated last year, relief measures can easily fall victim to corruption. The influence of climate change on cyclone characteristics in a world that is heating up due to accumulation of greenhouse gases is an ongoing topic of study. The IPCC, in its scientific report on 1.5° C warming, said with a high degree of confidence that changes in the climate system, including the proportion of tropical cyclones, would experience a larger impact from increasing warming. Research evidence shows more cyclones forming over the Arabian Sea when compared to the Bay; overall there were eight storms of concern to India in 2019, and five last year, Amphan being a super cyclone. The Centre and all States cannot afford to allow large-scale losses to communities to continue each year, and, going beyond disaster response, must put in place institutional structures and insurance systems for financial protection. Cities must prepare to harvest every deluge that brings vast quantities of water, so vital to sustain mass populations.

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