Enhancing Sundarbans' early warning for disaster preparedness

Cultural adaptations to tropical cyclone warnings and impacts are crucial steps in limiting losses
A woman searching for her utensils in debris of her house which collapsed after Cyclone Aila (Image: Anil Gulati, Wikimedia Commons)
A woman searching for her utensils in debris of her house which collapsed after Cyclone Aila (Image: Anil Gulati, Wikimedia Commons)

Due to its geographic location and low-lying coastal morphology, India's Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve (SBR) is extremely susceptible to cyclones and tidal surges. This deltaic region frequently sees cyclones that cause property damage and human casualties. Despite this, the SBR lacks a well-organized disaster management plan that is advantageous to all residents.

In order to successfully mitigate the dangers brought on by an increase in the frequency of tropical cyclones throughout, it is necessary to evaluate the mitigation measures already in place. The effectiveness of the local early warning systems (EWS) and disaster preparedness are both examined in this research by Mehebub Sahana et al.

Using field surveys, information was gathered at the household level on EWS, community preparedness, and the economic losses brought on by cyclones over the previous 10 years. To comprehend the relationship between losses and the EWS, the Poisson distribution model was applied. The findings show that coastal towns have become more susceptible due to a lack of early warning knowledge and delays in disaster preparedness. Policy actions are critically needed to protect coastal communities during and after cyclones because the SBR has a sufficient disaster management plan for reducing such losses. There is a need for potential upgrades to the current cyclone vulnerability reduction techniques.


For the SBR to be adequately prepared for cyclones, a strong EWS is necessary. A strategy like this can aid in minimising financial losses. The field survey revealed that the emergency preparedness and existing EWS were very lacking prior to the 2009 Aila storm. The establishment of particular Block-level committees with specialised functions has improved the system. Many households still rely heavily on their nearby neighbourhood and family members for early warnings. Given the generally dismal economic conditions present over the majority of the region, this is to be expected. Even so, relying on these other sources of warnings may be necessary due to the local Panchayat's (village assembly) rather little outreach in warning the entire village. The other major issue related to these conventional, slowly distributed routes of information is that we often only receive prior warning information 12 hours ahead to an expected event, which causes uncertainty regarding the most prudent option for responding.

Most of the studied households decided to remain in their current residences rather than transfer to a safer location, even after receiving early warning information. Some people choose this option since their villages are closer to Kolkata, where the effects of storms are less severe because of the mangrove tracts that stand between them and the open sea, and such habitations are generally safer. It is also clear that many of the surveyed households in more susceptible locations do not go to cyclone shelters because of the cramped circumstances there and their inability to bring their belongings and livestock with them.

The economic advantages of a proper and effective EWS were demonstrated in Bangladesh by studies, and such an approach assumes much greater significance in the coastal portions and islands of the already underdeveloped SBR. A more effective EWS in this case (by enhancing its reach and real-time transmission) might increase the disaster resilience of coastal towns.

It was found that there was a direct correlation between the timing of the early warnings received prior to a hazard event and the amount of time it took to recover in the wake of it (either immediately or completely to return to normalcy), with this being significantly less in the Blocks close to Kolkata and the mainland. Households were able to manage their assets and necessities throughout the cyclone event more efficiently thanks to timely early warning.

More research is warranted to determine how these factors might be improved to help households deal better as their capacity for recovery was also linked to their income level, education, and standard of life. Households in coastal Blocks are more informed and more prepared after receiving an early warning because they take the brunt of each cyclone event. Although majority of the sampled households in these coastal blocks had lower resilience than those close to the mainland, this was mostly because of their lower economic clout.

The drinking water crisis is another significant but sometimes neglected issue during cyclones and in their aftermath. Pond water is unfit for ingestion because of saline water intrusion. One of the main issues the tested homes encountered was the lack of access to drinking water during storms. Hence, it is vitally necessary to develop enough fresh water storage infrastructure in settlements.

The absence of post-cyclone trauma support for coastal populations is another significant but sometimes overlooked factor. It has been well acknowledged that floods and storm surges have an impact on people and society in both tangible and intangible ways. Hence, recovery from this trauma and restoration to complete normalcy necessitate skilled guidance.

After Cyclone Aila's devastation in 2009, several earthen embankments were built along many of the SBR's rivers and coastlines. The super cyclone Amphan in 2020, however, was not adequately protected by them, despite their best efforts. The establishment of vegetation buffers that can successfully prevent embankment breaches is the current focus, along with the recovery of mangroves along riverbanks and the coastline. Another method to minimize the damage is by raising social media awareness and creating a digital EWS platform.

With the implementation of pertinent programmes by the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management in 2010, the EWS has improved in Bangladesh, and similar strategies have been successful in India, as seen by the landfall of Cyclone Fani in 2019 near the Odisha coast. A quick comparison of the fatalities and damage caused by Cyclone Aila in 2009 and Cyclone Amphan in 2020 in West Bengal demonstrates that the harm inflicted has decreased as a result of improvements in EWS and increased use of digital media, even though significant improvements are still needed. Perhaps a bigger impact can be had by last-mile information dissemination in conjunction with the pertinent technical agencies and committees for early warning and awareness, as well as improvement of hazard prediction.

Mass awareness is essential for minimising the effects of disasters, and communities must be involved and educated about each EWS component. In towns along Bangladesh's coastline, the decision to evacuate frequently gets put off due to a lack of disaster preparedness training and early warnings, making it difficult for many residents to get to cyclone shelters in time. Studies have claimed that cultural adaptations to tropical cyclone warnings and impacts are crucial steps in limiting losses.

Fake news and inaccurate information regarding a disastrous event can occasionally cause panic among the local population. So, the local government must exercise great caution when distributing warnings via mobile communication devices. Any early warning signals must be understandable, concise, and basic.


This study examined preparedness among the coastal populations of the SBR in India, cyclone-induced losses, and EWS. Field surveys were used to gather household-level information on cyclone-related losses, various EWS components, and disaster readiness. These interrelations were established using the Poisson regression model. The research found that households belonging to economically disadvantaged groups were more likely to have livestock, home, and asset losses than other households. Since many (often isolated) communities heavily rely on unofficial sources like relatives, neighbours, and acquaintances for early warnings of cyclones, the condition of the existing EWS needs to be improved. Losses of this nature have also been suffered as a result of early warnings given at short notice.

Several people have been compelled to leave the SBR due to the inadequate facilities at cyclone centres and their remote locations. A comprehensive digital EWS and timely information dissemination are thus urgently required for enhanced preparedness and adaptation. A well-coordinated EWS made of organisations, members of task teams, and local communities can assist in making particular decisions and provide training for disaster preparedness. To safeguard coastal communities and help them recover from disaster events, more trauma centres and cyclone centres need to be built. Moreover, fresh water storage facilities that can be used during and after cyclones need to be built.

So, the results of this study can aid the local administration in improving the EWS framework already in place and improving disaster preparedness in the Sundarbans. The aspects described above may also be relevant in other coastal regions of India, particularly in South and South-east Asia, where numerous littoral states experience similar issues.

The full paper can be accessed here

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