The lessons learnt from Cyclone Yaas

Cyclone Yaas slammed into the north Odisha coast near Balasore on May 26, 2021 (Image: NASA Earth Observatory)
Cyclone Yaas slammed into the north Odisha coast near Balasore on May 26, 2021 (Image: NASA Earth Observatory)

On May 26, Cyclone Yaas from the Bay of Bengal hit the coast in Bhadrak district near the Bahanaga block north of Dhamra port of Odisha. This was the second cyclonic storm to hit the Indian coast in just a week. Cyclone Yaas with strong winds of 130-145 km per hr has caused severe damage to buildings and houses in Odisha and West Bengal.

Near the Dhamra port in Odisha, high sea waves and heavy rains have caused landslides and inundated low-lying areas. Many villages in Odisha's Balasore district were also flooded. A million people from Odisha and West Bengal have been evacuated. The cyclone has killed three people in Odisha and one in West Bengal. The cyclone has caused heavy rains in nine districts of Odisha. Heavy rains in the Mayurbhanj district have caused floods in the Budhabalanga river.

Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has said that the state of West Bengal has been affected the most by the cyclone affecting one crore people in West Bengal and three lakh houses severely damaged by heavy rains and strong winds. Many areas in West Bengal's South 24 Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly, Kolkata, and Digha districts were submerged. Rising water levels in the Bay of Bengal and Hooghly river have caused flooding on Sagar island. Flights from Kolkata and Bhubaneswar airports were cancelled on May 26. About 1,100 villages in West Bengal have been hit by the cyclone.

The southern part of India is surrounded on three sides by the sea. It is bounded on the east by the Bay of Bengal, on the west by the Arabian Sea, and on the south by the Indian Ocean. The total length of the coastal area is 7516.6 km and 10 states and 4 Union Territories are located in the coastal areas. These areas are home to 40 per cent of the country's population.

According to an IPCC report (November 2014), with the rise in temperature, the sea level has risen by 0.85 cm as compared to the pre-industrialization period. Many scientific research studies brought out the fact that rapidly increasing sea level and seawater temperature have resulted in an increasing number of cyclones. The obvious proof of this is before us. Recently May 17, Cyclone Tauktae wreaked havoc on India's west coast. The cyclone has killed at least 150 people and caused damage of over $ 2.1 billion.

Cyclonic storms are more frequent in the Bay of Bengal, affecting more than five states on the east coast (Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal) and one union territory, Puducherry. India experiences an average of five cyclonic storms each year, and one severe cyclone occurs almost every decade.

In November 1970, a devastating cyclone Bhola hit the Bay of Bengal. It was the deadliest cyclone in world history and killed at least half a million people in Bangladesh. The last super cyclone to hit India occurred in 1999 causing nearly 10,000 deaths and heavy loss of property in Odisha. The Indian government took action after a devastating tsunami in December 2004.

Before 2004 the country did not have a Disaster Management Committee and responded to disasters in a reactive manner and provided relief. After the tsunami hit in 2004, the Government of India only took action and set up National Disaster Management Force (NDRF), Disaster Management Committee (DRMC) and District Disaster Management Committees (DDMCs). Earlier, only troops were called in during any natural disaster. A tsunami alert center was also set up in India in 2007 to provide advance information about tsunamis and earthquakes in the coastal region, but it closed a year later due to lack of funds.

However, the India Meteorological Department has made so much progress that since the onset of the cyclone's formation in the ocean, accurate information about its path, place of landfall and speed of winds in it is given to the concerned areas in time. Thousands of lives are now being saved through advance warning of cyclones given by the Meteorological Department, which is a very commendable step.

Cyclone Yaas has killed only four people but more than 150 people have been killed in cyclone Tauktae on the west coast of India due to negligence on the part of the oil company as the company did not redirect the workers' boats to safe places despite having advance notice of the severity of the cyclone.

The main cause of cyclonic storms in the Bay of Bengal is its geography. According to Bob Henson, meteorologist and writer with the Weather Underground Organization, the north coast of the Bay of Bengal is more prone to catastrophic surges than anywhere on earth. Its triangular shape and shallow water are responsible for the increasing number of natural disasters. When the sea water is pushed towards the Bay of Bengal by strong winds, a strong cyclonic storm is formed here. According to meteorologists, high sea surface temperature in the Bay of Bengal is also a major cause for strong cyclones.

According to the meteorological department, the water temperature in the Bay of Bengal was 34 degree Celsius at the time of cyclone Yaas. The Indian Ocean has been warmer this year than usual. The warmer the ocean water, the more likely it is that a cyclone will form and increase the speed of the winds in it.

CNN meteorologist Padram Javeheri has said that the cyclone is causing heavy rains in northeastern India and Bangladesh due to the triangular shape of the Bay of Bengal. According to Sunil Amrith, the author of ‘Unruly waters: How rains, rivers, coasts, and seas have shaped Asia's history’ 500 million people live in the coastal rim surrounding the world's largest bay. The region is also home to some of the world's most dangerous cyclonic storms. According to a list compiled by the Weather Underground, 26 of the 35 deadliest tropical cyclones have occurred in the Bay of Bengal.

Cyclone Yaas has also caused heavy rains in Jharkhand after wreaking havoc in Odisha and West Bengal, affecting eight lakh people. This cyclone spells double trouble for millions of people in the country as there is no respite from COVID-19.

Millions of lives have been saved due to early warning of cyclones and the National Disaster Management Force which is a commendable initiative of the India Meteorological Department and National Disaster Management Force. As the temperature rises, the number of cyclones and the depth of their impact increase rapidly each year.

The Central and State Governments should take good care of the coastal vegetation to protect the coastal areas from cyclones as it is a natural disaster prevention. The governments should refrain from establishing industries and cities in the coastal areas because on one hand the establishment of industries and urbanization will result in deforestation and on the other the natural calamities will cause more financial loss.

Increasing incidence of natural calamities like floods in 2015, drought in 2019 in Chennai, heavy rains in Kerala in 2018 and floods in Mumbai in 2015 and 2017 are warning us to be prepared for natural calamities. To cope with natural disasters, we need to be friendly with nature and conserve our natural resources. We have to take great care of the vegetation and wetlands in the coastal areas. If we continue to destroy them at the current pace, we will face more natural disasters. That is why we have to adopt a pro-people and nature-friendly model of development.

Gurinder Kaur is Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala.