As Cyclone Tauktae knocks on India’s west coast, mitigation efforts fall short

In recent years, thanks to the IMD tracking cyclones almost from their inception to their land fall and beyond, cyclone forecast has improved considerably. (Credit: iStockPhoto)

Even as you read this, Cyclone Tauktae is brewing strong in the Arabian Sea. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has charted its path since May 14, when it was still a deep depression over the Lakshadweep area. The deep depression moved northwards and turned into a Cyclonic Tauktae (pronounced as Tau’Te) late last night and is now moving almost parallel to the western coast to reach Gujarat coast on May 18.

IMD’s latest forecast at 10 am on May 15 states that the cyclone is likely to intensify into a Severe Cyclonic Storm during next 12 hours and possibly into a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm during subsequent 12 hours, which would mean wind speeds of more than 160 kms per hour.

Over 5500 kms of the 7500-odd kms of India’s coastline is exposed to cyclones of varying intensity. Government studies estimates 40 % of the population living within 100 kms of the coastline could potentially suffer from these cyclones.

In a reply to a Parliamentary question in March, the government said, “studies show a decreasing trend in the frequency of formation of Cyclonic Storms over the Bay of Bengal and an increasing trend over the Arabian Sea, based on the data during 1965- 2020.”

Not just their frequency, even the intensity of cyclones in the Arabian Sea has increased in recent years, which experts had pointed out when the west coast braved Cyclone Nisarga last year. The phenomenon was ascribed to the rapid warming of the relatively cooler Arabian Sea (as compared to the Bay of Bengal) that suits cyclone formation. Economic losses due to such disasters are also on the rise.

Thus, there must be ample cyclone preparedness. In recent years, thanks to the IMD tracking cyclones almost from their inception to their land fall and beyond, cyclone forecast has improved considerably. Technology has also enabled easy access to similar forecasts by agencies the world over.

Post 1999, Odisha has gradually upgraded its infrastructure with proactive measures to mitigate damage from cyclones. Village level volunteers, cyclone shelters on stilts with provision for livestock, rescue boats, water and ration kits at the shelters are part of the regular drill that have proved its worth time and again in the state.

States on the western coast need to similarly ramp up their efforts. The early warning system for the most vulnerable communities and the mitigative efforts are being improved but the pace is tardy. The objective of the ongoing National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project (NCRMP) is to undertake suitable structural and non-structural measures to mitigate the effects of cyclones in the coastal areas.

The NCRMP aims at reducing the vulnerability of coastal states through the creation of appropriate infrastructure that can help mitigate the adverse impacts of cyclones, while preserving the ecological balance of a coastal region and strengthening cyclone warning systems enabling quick and effective dissemination of warning and advisories from source / district / sub-district level to the relevant communities.

The phase II of this project was approved in July 2015 to be completed by March 2020 for the states of Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra on the west coast and West Bengal on the east coast, at an outlay of Rs 2361.35 crore, including World Bank assistance of Rs 1881.20 crore with remaining to be contributed by the states.

As on March 2021, government records show the works for Early Warning Dissemination System (EWDS) in Goa, Karnataka and Kerala remained incomplete and were given a new deadline of February/March 2022. Unlike several government documents that are mostly in English, this information is supposed to reach the beneficiary in a language that he or she understands.

Further, in Goa, of the 12 Multi-Purpose Cyclone Shelters (MPCSs) to be completed, none was fully complete in all respects and the deadline for five of them was shifted to early 2022. In Karnataka, of the 11 MPCSs, eight are complete and three under execution. Kerala claimed that 10 of its 17 MPCSs were almost complete; three would be completed by August 2021 and the remaining by March 2022. Gujarat said it has completed 33 out of 76 MPCSs and remaining 43 would be completed by December 2021.

Once the physical structures are erected, the states would have to ensure Shelter Level Equipment (Set) too.

As the storm surges ahead, the real test would be on ground preparation, the coordination between multiple agencies, training of the state government officials to first design protocols and then to follow them, and increasing the community awareness, in local languages, about the risks and the possible mitigation measures.

A telling comment on the state of affairs on the ground was the lack of coordination that departments of the state governments displayed during the project steering committee meeting of the NCRMP in March this year.

“It was expected that the state governments should have sorted out their in-house issues / communications before attending the meeting with the Government of India,” was put on the records in the minutes of the meeting.

What can be a more severe indictment for the state governments?

(This opinion piece was first carried by Deccan Herald on May 15, 2021 and can be read here).

p.s. As I publish this here, the Cyclone Tauktae has turned into a devastating Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm (ESCS) and currently headed towards Gujarat for landfall at around midnight on May 17th.

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