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Indian Ocean Rim Countries Battered by Disasters – Part 2

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This is the second of a two-part series on hydrometeorological disasters in the Indian Ocean rim.

A wilting mangrove forest in Car Nicobar, destroyed by the Asian Tsunami in 2004. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

A wilting mangrove forest in Car Nicobar, destroyed by the Asian Tsunami in 2004. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

BHUBANESWAR, India, Jun 14 2012 (IPS) - The heat wave in the Indian state of Orissa, which saw a 10-degree Celsius increase in summer temperatures last month, claimed 21 lives, according to government sources; unofficial estimates counted 87 deaths.

Prafulla Ratha the team leader of emergency services at Concern Worldwide in Bhubaneswar, told IPS that one of the factors responsible for the fatalities was “workers not heeding the government’s advice regarding working hours and necessary preventive measures”.

But according to environmental experts, the problem was not desperately impoverished workers who could not afford to lose a day’s wages; rather it was the failure of disaster management to adequately plan for the heat wave, which was just one of the many hydrometeorological disasters that affected – and will continue to impact – Indian Ocean rim countries.

Orissa is the capital of disaster management. Forty-nine of the last 100 years saw floods, 30 years were drought-ridden, and 11 years faced cyclones.

A supercyclone that hit the state in 1999 claimed 15,000 lives, 2.5 million heads of livestock and 90 million trees.

Building resilience via strong disaster management policies, plans and action in the future will be crucial to avoiding such destruction in the future.

Indian ocean rim at risk

About 74.85 million people living on coastal areas in the 24 Indian Ocean rim Countries (IOC) are vulnerable to hydrometeorological disasters, making effective disaster management one of the most pressing issues of the day.

Most disasters affecting IOC countries include water and weather related calamities such as avalanches, cloudburst, coastal incursions, cyclones, drought, desertification, floods, flash floods, famine, hurricanes, storms, sea surge, tornadoes, tsunamis, and typhoons.

Such catastrophes destroy lives, property, and livelihoods in the short term and take a deadly toll on whole economies and national resilience in the long term. But planning ahead for such events has proved to be extremely difficult.

Unpredictable El Niño South Oscillation originating in the southeastern Pacific Ocean every few years upsets weather differentially around the world every time it occurs.

B.N. Goswami, director of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, told IPS, “Weather and climate can never be predicted perfectly. El Niño and La Niña are strongly related to occurrence of drought or floods over Indonesia and northern Australia and less strongly associated with drought or floods over India and eastern Africa. The impact over Sri Lanka tends to be generally opposite to that over India.”

If floods devastate India, Sri Lanka will likely experience drought in that same period, but predicting this accurately is still impossible today.

The vagaries of the weather can have tumultuous effects on agriculture, trade, industrial production, tourism, fisheries, demography, and the economy.

“The impacts of El Niño during winter are warm conditions over south Asia, dry and warm conditions over southeast Asia and southeast Africa, and dry conditions over north Australia,” said L.S. Rathore, director general of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD).

Glenn Cook, manager of Western Australia Climate Services in the Bureau of Meteorology, told IPS, “Over the past five years, the most notable hydrometeorological event would be the extremely dry year in 2010 in Western Australia since records commenced in 1900.

“Horticultural crops were destroyed (by) flooding in the Gascoyne River and at least 2000 cattle drowned. Whilst the major town of Carnarvon was protected by levies, estimates of the damage caused by the flooding were in the order of 100 million (Australian) dollars,” he added.

A full year after El Niño ceased, Western Australia endured its highest recorded temperatures during the late summer (February) of 2012.

But unlike Australia, most coastal communities around IOC lack resilience.

The flooding of the Kosi River, after its dam burst in August 2008, was a preventable disaster of tragic proportions that claimed 434 lives, left three million people homeless, ruined 340,000 hectares of farmland, damaged 300,000 structures and affected the livelihoods of 2.3 million people.

Flash floods in Karnataka’s drought-ridden districts in October 2009 claimed 36 lives, left 86 missing and submerged 11 districts, ruining thousands of acres of farmland. Reasons for the flash flood were soil erosion, desertification and dam mismanagement in the upper and lower riparian states – in other words, the disaster was entirely preventable.

Similarly, the Thai floods of October 2011 became a disaster when the receding floodwaters were blocked by man-made structures.

“Some types of extreme weather and climate events have increased in frequency or magnitude (and) populations and assets at risk have also increased,” according to the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation.

Long-term disaster management

“Crop insurance (and) contingency funds are necessary policy initiatives,” said R.S. Deshpande, director of the Bangalore-based Institute of Socio-Economic Change.

Mitigating flash floods requires sustained desilting of water bodies. “Dams effectively mitigate floods. Prevention of soil erosion, afforestation, and strengthening embankments also go a long way,” R.C. Jha, chairman of India’s Central Water Commission (CWC) told IPS.

IMD undertakes “observation and collection of hydrometeorological data, transmission of data to forecasting centres and dissemination of hydrometeorological bulletins, including forecasts, to flood forecasting centres of CWC,” Senior Scientist of the Hydrometeorological Division of IMD in New Delhi, Surinder Kaur, told IPS.

But IMD’s exhaustive database is unable to indicate weather patterns. It was not able to predict the severity of Orissa’s supercyclone of October 1999 and the Thai floods last year, both of which had their genesis in a tropical cyclone originating off the Malay Peninsula on Oct. 18 of the respective years.

It is thus clear that a database of rainfall patterns is necessary. Without data analysis or interpretation, data collection will remain a fruitless exercise.

Further aggravating the situation is India’s economic growth that leaves no space for forests and carbon sinks, both vital components in mitigating climate change.

Forests disappear and bioshields wilt, eroding topsoil and river embankments. Years of political connivance with encroachers, corruption and negligence means that dams, reservoirs, lake systems and storm water drains have not been desilted for decades, embankments and river shores are not strengthened and catchment areas, water weirs and drainage basins are encroached upon.

Rajan Joshua a pioneer in watershed management in Andhra Pradesh’s desertified Anantapur district, said, “Watershed management, rainwater harvesting, desilting of all water bodies, ecological succession of endemic biodiversity, and clearance of all encroachment in the catchment area help in mitigating desertification (in the) long term.”

V.S. Prakash, director of the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre in Bangalore, added, “Drought management in the country primarily hinges on integrated sectoral water resources management and coordination between science, the administration, legal framework, political systems and communities.”

Preparedness for hydrometeorological disasters lies in reducing biodiversity loss, husbanding bioshields, strengthening river embankments, fiscal incentives, mitigating desertification and drought, soil conservation, weather forecasting, record keeping, building resilience, urban planning, corruption- free administration and foolproof inter-agency coordination.

 
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