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What Lessons Can India’s West Coast Learn From the Cyclone-Weathered East?

What Lessons Can India’s West Coast Learn From the Cyclone-Weathered East?

A satellite image of Cyclona Nisarga at 7:30 pm on June 2. Image: IMD/PTI.

Two weeks ago, Cyclone Amphan ravaged West Bengal, taking 98 lives and reportedly causing Rs 1 lakh’s crore worth of damages. Yesterday, Cyclone Nisarga made landfall on the west coast of India near Maharashtra. The state has also been reporting a rising number of COVID-19 cases and has been reeling under the novel coronavirus epidemic. Unless efficiently managed, the double impact of COVID-19 and the cyclone could prove calamitous.

At least one study in Odisha has shown that regions with prior disaster-related experience are better prepared. (Editor’s note: the study was undertaken by the same institute that the authors are affiliated with.) Of these the districts ‘traditionally’ not in the cyclone’s path fail to be prepared, such as Puri district under Cyclone Fani. The narrative is the same for the west coast’s preparedness. Most of India’s west coast has not seen a cyclone in decades, and the National Disaster Management Authority lists districts in Maharashtra as ‘moderate to highly vulnerable’ to cyclonic winds and coastal flooding.

Can the east coast’s experience of frequent cyclones inform Maharashtra’s disaster response?

The Disaster Management Act of 2005 mandates states to focus on prevention, preparedness and mitigation measures against cyclones, and calls for accurate early warning systems and detailed disaster management plans. These tools guide a state’s response to a disaster. While early-warning systems are monitored by the central government, the disaster management plans are the state’s responsibility.

Almost 15 years have passed since the notification of the Act. Maharashtra’s response strategy should be ready to overcome Nisarga. But even states that have faced frequent climate disasters, have instead responded by reacting, not acting. They have failed to address livelihoods and access to basic services – critical challenges exacerbated during disasters. A cyclone in the middle of a pandemic complicates the situation. Inadequate preparedness can worsen challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis.

Preparedness on two coasts

At this time last year, Puri in Odisha was in the news: it had no electricity for almost two weeks after Cyclone Fani. Our research showed that all districts were not evenly prepared to handle the devastation. Districts with prior experience, which also had media attention, were better-prepared. They had received much more support from the state. For example, control rooms in different blocks tracked the cyclone’s path and preparedness in those areas. Despite the annual occurrence of cyclones, the experience in Puri was described as being the “first of its kind” and “unprecedented”. It has never been the site of a landfall and was thus underprepared.

A large proportion of Maharashtra’s population is vulnerable to flooding and high wind-speed. The state government installed some measures to tackle Nisarga, focusing on informal settlements, chawls and low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding. Slum-dwellers were evacuated and fishermen limited to the shore. National and state disaster response forces were deployed, and a control room was set up to oversee their operations. However, the prevailing physical distancing norms complicated the evacuation and sheltering processes.

Social networks, which are these days the ‘first responders’ for relief and rescue, were compromised, thus affecting marginalised communities. The next few days will show whether Maharashtra’s preparatory measures have worked.

Over the years, the state has failed to respond to key issues, e.g. floods that inundate Mumbai every year. Political issues and poor planning have resulted in its failing drainage systems. Any disruption of basic state services could aggravate its already vulnerable condition.

The state’s response to Nisarga will need to be more innovative and holistic to avoid grave short- and long-term damages.

Way forward for the west coast

Some 80% cent of the 623 tropical storms in the last century formed over the Bay of Bengal. The west coast has been calmer and thus less visible in cyclone discourse. But in 2019, five storms formed over the Arabian Sea thanks to climate change and resulting temperature rise. Such rare cyclones may not remain unprecedented any longer. This forces better preparedness and mitigation measures for coastal states.

Integrative, climate-resilient actions must target sectors such as housing, power and sanitation. Odisha has evolved its disaster preparedness from lessons learnt over time. It has developed resilient housing in cyclone prone areas, and innovative relief packages that address diverse livelihoods. Maharashtra may borrow these lessons and adapt them to its needs.

Left: Resilient housing, part of the Odisha disaster recovery project in coastal villages. Right: 2. A multi-purpose cyclone shelter built by the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority. Photos: Zohrab Reys Gamat, IIHS Media Lab

Cyclone Nisarga had slowed by the time it reached Mumbai – but it could be the first of more intense, more frequent cyclones to originate in the warming Arabian Sea. Maharashtra must update its disaster response strategies and adapt them to new challenges. With informed strategies and systematic action, it could cut losses from anticipated future disasters.

At present the cascading issues of COVID-19 may restrict their adaptation capacities. But it also provides an opportunity to explore alternate ways to address these challenges. These could include digital data gathering, multi-hazard vulnerability assessment, and strategic inter-departmental coordination. Governments, aid agencies and communities need to collaborate to cope with such calamities. The resulting strategies for two different yet severe disasters will inform future lifesaving, multi-faceted recovery processes.

With inputs from Garima Jain.

Gargi Sen and Vineetha Nalla are researchers at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru.

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