By Vanita Suneja
The nomenclature of cyclones and hurricanes is done much in advance by a multilateral process in the region. The name – Amphan, (Sky in Thai and Akash in Bangla language) was also chosen long back. Originating in the warm water of Bay of Bengal, Amphan hit India’s eastern coast 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 forecasted by the meteorological sciences.
As weather science has advanced on accurate predictions about cyclones and hurricanes, governments and disaster management authorities too have progressed towards better management. Being a low lying island country, Bangladesh has invested considerably towards disaster management and its robust cyclone shelters are models for other countries in the region. India too has made giant strides in disaster preparedness. Withstanding the challenges of physical distancing and hand hygiene in view of COVID-19, within two days, both countries evacuated more than 5 million people yet 100 lives were lost.
The impact of a storm cannot be estimated by the causalities only. The super cyclone surged with waves up to 15 feet high and peddled the wind at a speed up to 185 km/hr. Amphan trampled the first defense -the mangroves of the Sundarbans delta and pushed inside the rural and urban areas of West Bengal near the coast and also impacted parts of coastal Odisha. In West Bengal, East Midnapore, 24 South, and North Parganas and the capital city Kolkata were heavily impacted. Kolkata witnessed electricity, communication, and water supply outage for a number of days. In Bangladesh, the cyclone wreaked 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 to live. As specific stories have started coming out of the impacted areas, it shows large scale devastation and years of misery ahead for the vulnerable population. The salinity has ceded in the arable lands of the affected areas in both countries. Trees, mango orchards and, freshwater ponds have borne the brunt of Amphan.
Freshwater ponds are a lifeline in salinity affected coastal areas and it takes years of rainwater and treatment to get salinity out of a water body. Amphan ravaged houses, shops, water supply, latrines and sewerage systems, electricity, and communication infrastructure. A large number of people are without safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. River embankments have been damaged resulting in salinity gushing deep to the arable land and water resources. Millions of people already facing tough times due to COVID 19 have further lost employment, food, water, and homes due to Amphan.
Climate science is yet to get the attention it deserves. Oceans are going to be warmer due to climate change, absorbing more greenhouse gases and resulting in more storms and cyclones. Climate scientists have been telling this all along through IPCC reports and after conducting researches over the years. The warming of oceans would lead to an 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 of the cyclone of their times.
Apart from the recovery and reconstruction work, investment and long term planning are required to make access to drinking water resilient. Some of the interventions which have worked in these saline coastal areas both in Bangladesh and in India for making clean drinking water accessible is through investing in pond sand filters, rainwater harvesting, and making treated potable water available through filtration plants. Given that low lying areas get inundated, care has to be taken to invest in ponds which are on comparatively higher topography and are perennial along with taking appropriate measures to protect them from contamination. As climate variability is impacting the region, rainwater harvesting interventions require storage tanks to retain water for a much longer time. WaterAid with partner agencyRupendra in Khulna, Bangladesh has worked on the rainwater harvesting systems with large catchments, storage capacity, and improvement in the filtration and water safety plants to be followed up with monitoring of water quality.
Mangroves forests of Sundarbans are self-sustaining and are a natural buffer to the cyclones. Treating mangroves as heritage and not converting these lifesaving marshy land to resorts, hotels, coal plants, etc, and conserving them from excessive human action is need of the hour for both Bangladesh and India. In fact, the areas require further depopulation given the threats from the frequent cyclones.
Last but not least strengthening local action, local governance, and local self-help groups for livelihoods and enterprises with women as leaders are the key for reorganizing strongly from the ground up. 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 Sundarbans mangroves forests, lord of the South- Dakkhin Rai attacks humans in the disguise of tigers, and there is the lady of the forest, a guardian spirit, Bonbibi who protects the humans. Bonbibi is about kindness, peace, and equality as opposed to the predatory nature of Dakkhin Roy. Living with nature and not trampling it beyond a point requires conscious behavior 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.