Living through cyclone Amphan and Covid-19: Climate change and water security

In the face of frequent cyclones and floods in the region, investment and long term planning is needed on making basic services of drinking water resilient.
Millions of people in India and Bangladesh lost their means of employment, food, water and homes in one go during the cyclone (Image: Srikanth Kolari/ActionAid India) Millions of people in India and Bangladesh lost their means of employment, food, water and homes in one go during the cyclone (Image: Srikanth Kolari/ActionAid India)

The nomenclature of cyclones and hurricanes is developed much in advance through multilateral processes in the region. The name Amphan (Sky in Thai and Akash in Bangla) was chosen from a long list of potential disasters long back. Originated in the warm waters of Bay of Bengal, Amphan hit the coastal eastern border of India and coastal southwest parts of Bangladesh in the third week of May. While latching on to the Digha town in West Bengal, India and Hatiya island in Bangladesh, it almost stayed true to its onward trajectory, intensity and time as predicted by the meteorological forecasting agencies.

As the weather sciences have advanced with accurate predictions about cyclones and hurricanes, so have governments and disaster management authorities progressed on disaster management in the region. Bangladesh as a low lying island country has invested a lot on disaster management and its robust cyclone shelters are models for other countries in the region, whereas India has also progressed as a torch bearer in disaster preparedness.

Notwithstanding, the challenges of social distancing and hand hygiene associated with Covid 19, within two days, both the countries evacuated more than 5 million people. It was like dealing with multiple disasters at the same time. Large scale evacuation by both the countries in time saved human lives, as the total casualties remained around 100.

However, the impact of a storm cannot be estimated by the causalities only.  The super cyclone surged with waves up to 15 ft height and peddled the wind at a speed up to 185 km/hr. 

Amphan trampled the first defence - the mangroves of the Sunderban delta region and pushed inside the rural and urban areas of West Bengal near the coasts and also impacted parts of coastal Odisha.

In West Bengal, the districts of East Midnapore, 24 South and North Parganas as well as the capital city of Kolkata were heavily impacted. It made its strong presence felt through the City of Joy by shattering whatever came its way. Kolkata was cut out of electricity, communication and water supply for a number of days. In Bangladesh, the cyclone played havoc with the low lying coastal areas of Khulna and Satkhira.

Due to preparedness and large-scale evacuations, lives could be saved but not the means of livelihoods and basic services required for living. As the specific stories have started coming out of the impacted areas, it shows large scale devastation and years of misery ahead for the vulnerable populations living there. The salinity ingress in the arable lands of affected areas in both the countries would take years to reclaim. Life giving trees, mango orchards and fresh water ponds could not run for their life. Fresh water ponds, the lifeline in the salinity affected coastal areas will take years of rainwater and treatment to get over the salinity.

Cyclone Amphan ravaged houses, shops, water supply, toilets and sewerage systems, electricity and communication infrastructure. A large number of people are without safe drinking and sanitation facilities. There has been damage to stretches of embankments of the rivers in affected areas in both the countries resulting in the saline water gushing deep into the arable land and water bodies.

Millions of people in India and Bangladesh lost their means of employment, food, water and homes in one go and were completely shattered due to the cyclone, while already impacted by the extended lockdown in both the countries. The pandemic has made the whole world realize the importance of a few things essential to all such as - access to food, water, hand hygiene and adequate health services. A home is important and losing a home amidst Covid-19 is a double whammy. Also, the flexibility to be engaged in decent work and freedom to go out has never been as precious as the majority of people see slipping what was granted forever. And a storm, cyclone, hurricanes or floods takes away whatever is essential to live.

As the weather science has gained trust from the government and people on accurate early warnings, a similar acceptance has not yet come for climate sciences.  

Nature follows its own rhythm backed by physical science, and in essence it neither acts like a benevolent god nor a demon in the world of human beings. Oceans are going to be warmer due to climate change, absorbing more greenhouse gases and giving births to more storms and cyclones. This is what climate change scientists have been telling us through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and research being done over the years. The warming of oceans would lead to increase in the frequency and intensity of such storms. People of Sundarbans from both the countries, who have witnessed many cyclones in the region say that this has been the most ferocious one in their times. 

In face of frequent cyclones and floods and increasing salinity of water sources, apart from the recovery and reconstruction work, one of the most essential investments and long term planning required is to make basic services of drinking water resilient.

Some of the interventions which have worked in these saline coastal areas both in Bangladesh and India for making clean drinking water accessible are through investing on pond sand filters, rainwater harvesting and making treated potable water available through filtration plants.

Given that low lying areas gets inundated, care needs to be taken to invest in pond sand filters which are located on comparatively higher elevations in the region. Measures are needed to protect the ponds from source contamination. As climate variability is impacting the region with heavy rainfall over shorter duration, designing rainwater harvesting interventions requires storage tanks to retain water for a much longer time. In Khulna, Bangladesh WaterAid along with its partner agency Rupendra has worked on rainwater harvesting systems with large catchments and storage capacity. The work entailed improvement in filtration and water safety plants to be followed up with monitoring of water quality.

Mangrove forests of Sunderbans are self-sustaining, and a natural buffer to the cyclones. Treating mangroves as a common heritage and not converting the lifesaving marshy land as tourism resorts, hotels, coal plants etc., and protecting them from excessive human action is the need of the hour for both Bangladesh and India. In fact, the area requires further depopulation given the threats from frequent cyclones.

Last but not the least, strengthening local action, local governance and local self-help groups for livelihoods and enterprises with women as leaders is a key for reorganizing strongly from the ground level.

In the coastal upazilas of Dacope and Shyamnagar in Bangladesh women self-help groups are running the water filtration plants based on reverse osmosis as entrepreneurs.

In the mythology of Sunderbans mangrove forests, lord of the South - Dakkhin Rai attacks humans in the disguise of tigers, and there is the lady of forest, a guardian spirit, Bonbibi who protects the humans. The legend of Bonbibi is about kindness, peace and equality compared to the predatory nature of Dakkhin Rai.

Living with nature and not trampling it beyond a point requires conscious behaviour choices in day to day life and this is something which both the disasters of our times - Amphan and Covid 19 are asking us to take into consideration.

 

Vanita Suneja is currently working with the South Asia region of WaterAid as the Regional Advocacy Manager. She has been working on a wide range of issues including water, sanitation, hygiene, natural resource management, rural livelihoods, and climate change. She holds a Master’s degree in Forestry Management from the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal. She enjoys traveling, reading, and photography.

This article has appeared in Smart Water & Waste World here

 

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