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Economic Cost of Cyclones: How Can India Minimize the Mounting Losses of Tauktae, Amphan?

Destruction in Gujarat when cyclonic storm Tauktae made landfall on May 17. (Image: News18)

Destruction in Gujarat when cyclonic storm Tauktae made landfall on May 17. (Image: News18)

The loss of lives may have reduced significantly but India still incurs tremendous economic losses with each cyclone. Last year, Cyclone Amphan cost 14 billion dollars.

In the past twenty-two years, the cyclone forecast system and evacuation procedures have evolved rapidly, as a consequence of which, the death tolls in recent cyclones like Amphan, Tauktae, and Yaas have been considerably lower. For instance, in 1999, a supercyclone ravaged Odisha, claiming more than 10,000 lives (unofficial sources say that the death toll was much higher); however, during the latest ‘very severe’ cyclone, Yaas, the total number of deaths were twenty (approximately).

Although the loss of lives has reduced significantly, India still incurs tremendous economic losses with each cyclone. Last year, Cyclone Amphan cost 14 billion dollars, according to a UN report. RMSI, a global consulting firm working on natural calamities, pegged Cyclone Tauktae’s economic damage at Rs 15,000 crore.

In a recent interview with News18.com, Saurabh Bhardwaj, Fellow & Area Convener, at Centre for Climate Modelling, at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), explained the increasing erraticism of cyclone systems and ways to mitigate the impact of cyclones, thereby reducing economic losses.

“The surface heat of seas and oceans is one of the contributing factors in the genesis of cyclones, and in the past few decades, we have seen that since oceans absorb the heat released due to global warming, their surface heat has been on the rise. Therefore, we see more frequent and intense cyclones nowadays," said Bhardwaj.

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“Our scientific models allow us to predict these cyclones well - from their genesis to their paths, primarily because the government has invested heavily in ocean observation systems. However, these scientific models do not have sufficient data to predict the intensification of cyclones. Therefore, what we see with recent storms is that they intensify very rapidly, sometimes within 24 hours to 48 hours, without giving much time to react," he added.

Bhardwaj explained that while these forecast models allow enough time for the evacuation process to be carried out and disaster management measures to be implemented, there is no way to save property, agriculture and infrastructure from facing extreme damage and destruction. Therefore, there is a desperate need for India to invest and plan long term disaster management techniques and design policies, which will take into account that, as the eastern coast, now India’s west coast will also see intense and frequent cyclones and, therefore, without a well-planned management strategy, the economic losses will be grave.

“As we have more infrastructure in the paths of cyclones than we did ten years ago, the scale of destruction and devastation is also more. We cannot mitigate a storm; we cannot stop it. But what we can do from the policy end is to reduce carbon emissions drastically and invest in green technology so that we can mitigate global warming, which causes ocean heating, which further contributes to amplifying the intensity of cyclones. We have to incentivize greening of the development," he added.

Bhardwaj pointed out that the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project that NDMA is conducting with World Bank support has data that shows that the West Coastal States are lagging behind their Eastern counterparts in various coastal resilience measure like building multipurpose cyclone centres, providing underground cables for electricity etc. “Historically, the Eastern coast has seen many cyclones, but moving forward, the cyclones in western coast is also likely to increase. Therefore, these resilience measures should be implemented more thoroughly in western coastal states as well," said Bhardwaj.

“States should invest in studies that bring out local level risk assessments. If states have local-level data on infrastructure, it will be easier for them to rank where to focus. For instance, if coastal regions have slums made of mostly kachcha houses, then the focus should be to rehabilitate the inhabitants of those houses into pukka buildings, which are disaster resilient. That doesn’t mean that these people will not have to leave their homes and go to cyclone centres during storms, but it just ensures that when the storms have passed, they do not return to a completely wrecked house with no place to go."

One of the most crucial ways to minimize the impact of cyclones is Nature-Based Solutions like mangroves, coastal dunes, sand pans, vegetation etc. “They are far better in weathering different cyclones and tempering them than any manufactured provisions. Therefore, efforts should be made not to destroy them for construction purposes. They are the first line of defence which is why West Bengal Chief Minister has also planned to replant mangroves in Sundarbans," Bhardwaj added.

Last but not least, disaster management responses are not only for those involved in disaster management to learn. From school children to working professionals, everyone should be given proper training on what to do during a cyclone. Therefore, the community-based response should be planned as well, which are fair, and doesn’t discriminate against the poor and the marginalized or leave them out of the loop, explained Bhardwaj.

Bhardwaj said that India has already begun work on building disaster-resilient infrastructure. Coalition For Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) has been working to develop a common framework under which disaster-resilient infrastructure can be constructed. Currently, they are focusing on the power sector.

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first published:June 05, 2021, 10:00 IST