Cyclone Yaas imperils communities in low-lying coastal areas of Bay of Bengal


By Gurvinder Singh

Shilpa Gayen shudders to recall the moment when she almost lost her life after strong winds blowing in her village brought down her mud house on May 26, the day when Yaas, a very severe cyclonic storm, unleashed its fury in the Bay of Bengal states of West Bengal and Odisha. 

The 60-year-old widow stays at Purulpara village, a few kilometres away from the bank of the river Rupnarayan bordering the East Midnapore and Howrah district of West Bengal. For the past three days, she has been living in a primary school along with other villagers where she is being offered food and water. But the memories of that day refuse to leave her. “I was resting on a bed when suddenly the howling of the winds and sound of water jolted me up from sleep. I saw water gushing inside my house and winds blowing away the roof. The bamboo pillars started to give away. I rushed out to save my life. Within a few minutes, the mud house came down like a bundle of cards. I lost my savings and even important documents.” 

Two Indian Ocean cyclones too close for comfort 

But she is not alone. Several thousands of people living in the eastern coastal region have similar stories to reveal about cyclone Yaas that battered the states of Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand leaving behind the trail of destruction and devastation. 

Cyclone Yaas was a second natural calamity to hit the country within a fortnight after cyclone Tauktae wreaked havoc on the west coast claiming several lives and causing severe damage to the property, amid the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon after cyclone Tauktae made landfall on May 17, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) warned of a low-pressure area forming over the east-central Bay of Bengal and the adjoining north Andaman Sea. 

The severe cyclonic storm over the west-central Bay of Bengal (BoB) moved north-northwestwards and intensified into a very severe cyclonic storm on May 25 evening over northwest BoB. Continuing to move further north-northwestwards, it crossed the North Odisha coast, about 20 km to the south of Balasore as a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm with a maximum sustained wind speed of 130 -140 kmph gusting to 155 kmph on May 26 morning. It weakened into a depression over central parts of Jharkhand, according to a May 27 IMD press release.

Although both the storms have been reacting in the same manner there is a slight difference pertaining to geography, scientists said in a media release. Roxy Mathew Koll, scientist, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Lead Author, IPCC Oceans and Cryosphere, said: “Similarity between cyclone Yaas and Tauktae is that both are preceded by very high sea surface temperatures reaching 31-32 degree Celsius.”

However, there is one difference. Tauktae spent several days in the Arabian Sea where it could draw the heat and moisture continuously, reaching a peak intensity of more than 220 km/hr. In the case of Yaas, it has formed in the north Bay of Bengal, and the travel distance to landfall was shorter. As a result, it didn’t get a long period over the ocean to blow up to the intensity of Tauktae.

“Here the common thread is that rising ocean temperatures in both the basins are assisting these cyclones in their ‘rapid intensification’ process. Otherwise, we don’t see a significant increase in the number of cyclones over the Bay of Bengal as we see in the Arabian Sea,” Koll added.

Better planning and co-ordination saved lives some areas

Even before the landfall on May 26, the telltale signs of the approaching storm were visible when high tide triggered by the cyclonic storm flooded Digha, the tourism spot in Bengal bordering Odisha. Several factories were inundated in Haldia, the industrial hub of Bengal due to a breach of embankment in river Hooghly. Overall, media reports said that embankments were breached in three districts at 136 points in Bengal.

Unlike cyclone Amphan that had caused several casualties, the loss of human lives in cyclone Yaas was less due to better planning and timely action by the West Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand governments. Hours after the landfall, the cyclone moved towards Jharkhand. The official death toll has been collectively 14 (4 in West Bengal, 6 in Odisha and 4 in Jharkhand) in three states though the damage to property and livelihood has been much severe.

“The huge toll in cyclone Amphan had better prepared us to deal with cyclone Yaas. The preparations began on May 18 when the cyclone was still a week away. We held meetings with different stakeholders like the district magistrate, officials of irrigation, fisheries and forest department. We tried to ensure that there was no power outages pre and post-cyclone so that rescue work continues unhampered. Even the hospitals were given power back-ups for smooth functioning. Around 1200 shelter homes were sanitised,” said a senior government official from West Bengal’s disaster management department.

“We also provided 34 satellite phones to different stakeholders to ensure communication doesn’t get snapped. Even dry ration kits and water pouches were readied in advance so that people do not sleep hungry and suffer a shortage of water,” the official said requesting anonymity.

Around 2.2 million people from three states were evacuated to safer areas. Several non-profits and civil organization also played a major role in saving lives and rescuing people to the safer areas during the cyclone. 

Volunteers of Very High Frequency (VHF) HAM radio stations (amateur radio) helped the process in West Bengal during the cyclone. “We had set-up 42 base radio stations at various places of South and North 24 Parganas, Kolkata and Hoogly districts that were connected to different administrative offices. We also had mobile radio stations on boats and cars through which our volunteers kept informing the officials about the people in distress,” said Ambarish Nag Biswas, founder of West Bengal Radio Club comprising radio enthusiasts as its members.

Damage to agriculture and livelihood

However, cyclone Yaas has caused tremendous damage to livelihood and property. Archana Samant, 28, who lives in Kamalpur village bordering East Midnapore and Howrah district, broke down while revealing that she couldn’t save her livestock and vital documents from getting swept in the water. “It was not the severity of cyclone but the high tide that spurred water into our villages and caused substantial property damage.  Everything happened so fast that I couldn’t get time to save my poultry and goats on which I depended for livelihood.  The important government documents are also lost in the water. We managed to escape and save our lives. How will I survive without a livelihood?”

Swathes of agricultural fields have also been flooded with salt water due to the breach of embankments in several areas. “I had grown some vegetables in the field and was planning to sell them in a market next week but the field has got submerged in salty water. The vegetables that I was cultivating are destroyed. I have nothing left anymore. I am surviving on the food being offered by a social organisation,” said Ranjit Das, 45, a farmer at Oupada block in Balasore district of Odisha. 

In West Bengal, districts like East Midnapore, South 24 Parganas and parts of North 24 Parganas were most affected while hundreds of villages in Odisha’s Balasore and Bhadrak districts were inundated following the ingression of seawater in coastal districts due to high waves. 

Threat to ecology of the Sundarbans

In the mangrove-laden deltaic islands of the Sundarbans, the saltwater high tide caused by the cyclone inundated Sunderban Tiger Reserve (STR) and breeding centres for crocodiles and rare species of turtle. 

Nylon net fencing used to prevent tigers from entering human habitat has also been damaged, “The mangroves plantation drive initiated last year after cyclone Amphan has helped to minimize the large scale damage. But the water surge due to high tide entered into 28 protective camps and inundated them. We have kept around 200 critically endangered northern river terrapin (Batagur baska) in these camps for breeding and also to save them from diseases. We have rescued five turtles that went out. We are still trying to figure out if there have been more such escapes,” Vinod Kumar Yadav, the Chief Wildlife Warden, West Bengal, told Mongabay-India.

Water also entered the Bhagbatpur breeding centre for saltwater crocodiles in South 24 parganas in West Bengal, “We have around 300 crocodiles in the centre. The boundary wall and nylon nets have been damaged in the cyclone. The repair work has already begun. Fortunately, there was no escape of crocodile from the centre,” Yadav said.

According to India State of Forest Report (2019), West Bengal has 42.45 percent of India’s mangrove cover, followed by Gujarat (23.66 percent) and Andaman and Nicobar islands (12.39 percent). The mangroves in Bengal are spread over an area of 2112 square km across South 24 Parganas (2082 sq km), North 24 Parganas (25 sq km) and Purba (East) Midnapore (4 sq km). The report records a loss of 1.89 sq km in mangrove cover with respect to the 2017 assessment. Authorities are still assessing damage to the mangroves of the islands from cyclone Yaas; mangroves stretches (over 28 percent) had started recovering from Cyclone Amphan’s impact last year.

Following Amphan, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had announced the plantation of five crore mangrove saplings in the Sundarbans, as part of the ‘Regreening Bengal’ initiative to restore the cyclone-affected green cover in the state. She has inquired about the status of the mangrove plantations in the Sundarbans in the aftermath of cyclone Yaas. The chief minister has pegged losses from Yaas to the tune of Rs. 50,000 crore and has sought a more long-term solution to mangrove loss and embankment breaches.

Odisha steps ahead for a disaster and pandemic management skill development

Odisha which has seen over a 100 cyclone since 1891 and has shored up its disaster management since the 1999 supercyclone that claimed over 10,000 lives, has stepped up its disaster management by including disaster and pandemic management in its educational curriculum and making it mandatory for government employees, through a resolution passed by its council of ministers on May 29, for a disaster and pandemic resilient state.

The state government didn’t seek immediate funds from the Centre for cyclone Yaas-associated relief but has sought assistance for a permanent solution for disaster risk reduction by having disaster-resilience power sector and long-term coastal protection.

As per the disaster risk index of the fifteenth finance commission, Odisha tops the list of vulnerable states. Odisha’s foray into making its infrastructure disaster-resilient started post-cyclone Phailin in 2013. It had to reexamine its power infrastructure after the cyclone extensively damaged its power transmission and distribution system, prompting action on developing long-term plans for disaster-resilient power infrastructure and coastal resilience.

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