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Cyclone Yaas destruction reinforces need for effective climate change planning

A field trip to a mangrove island near the Bay of Bengal highlights the determination and creativity of local communities in adapting to climate change. Image credit: IIED/Flickr

Almost two weeks after Cyclone Yaas made landfall, lakhs of people continue to struggle to access drinking water and basic supplies – not to mention the burden of navigating the latest trail of destruction to their livelihoods.  

First wrecking damage to the Bay of Bengal on the northern coast of India, Cyclone Yaas developed rapidly in strength and brought further troubles to areas that had previously braced for Cyclone Amphan just the year before. This is unsurprising with trends showing that the frequency of very severe cyclonic storms in the post-monsoon season is increasing, as Health Issues India previously reported. Worryingly, this is likely to continue to rise as sea-surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean rise faster than the global average.  

Connected to the effect of climate change, Cyclone Yaas’s impact was anticipated. The government evacuated thousands of families before the exacerbated weather event made landfall. Nonetheless, the fallout from Cyclone Yaas will leave many Indians in a state of uncertainty and has also seen a death toll of four

Damage to way of life across the northern coast

Cyclone Yaas has been different from cyclones that have come before it in India in that there hasn’t been scores of injuries and mortalities. Instead, for those living in the Bay of Bengal, the effects will likely play out over the coming weeks and months. 

“People didn’t die this time in the cyclone, but they might die of poverty. We lost all our means of livelihood. How can we survive this way?” said Gourhari Manna of Sridharnagar of L-Plot, one of the islands in Sundarban located at the lap of Bay of Bengal. “They won’t let us live. Amphan last year damaged everything, and within a year Yaas came to damage us even more.”

It is damage to livelihoods that has been one of the most pressing impacts felt. This has been because of the blow dealt to embankments by Cyclone Yaas. Bearing the brunt of the surge, irrigation department officials said nearly 156km of river embankments in four districts — East Midnapore, Howrah, North and South 24-Parganas — were either breached or damaged. 

This has had, and will continue to have, far-reaching implications for those who farm the land and rely on climate conditions for their livelihoods. An increase in salinity would render land unfarmable and decrease the amount of use residents could get from bodies of water. 

Proximity to the Sundarbans river system which has a notably high highest silt load also poses a threat when flooding occurs. Rivers can carry this sediment into new locations, and reports suggest that this has even resulted in the formation of mounds of land appearing. 

“If salt water penetrates beneath the surface, it takes more than a couple of years to get the same yield from that farm land. The process of desalination is expensive and laborious. These people can’t do that without government support. With the surge in COVID-19 numbers, any logistical support is doubly difficult,” said Sankar Halder, the founder of a non-government organisation called Mukti that works in a dozen blocks in the Sunderbans.

Lessons to learn 

Given that east India and the Bay of Bengal are prone to some of the most forceful cyclones seen globally, suggestions that the Indian government should now plan the establishment of further industries and urbanisation with these weather events firmly at the front of the process in mind should seemingly be taken for granted. Development of industries and urbanisation in these areas will bring deforestation to the fore and exacerbate further natural calamities causing future financial loss.

As Anunita Jena writes for, “given the region’s proximity to several nuclear power plants, chemical industry corridors, and other critical infrastructure, there could be far-reaching consequences beyond the cyclones. Coastal development must be immediately reconsidered.”

As demonstrated by Cyclone Yaas, effective mitigation and adaptation methods will also be critical. The Indian government has now embraced the use of concrete embankments, intended to hold back the tide as a solution to powerful weather events and rising sea levels. For many developing countries these actions are now the main agenda; adaptation and resilience taking precedence over decarbonisation of their economies. 

This suggests that states within the Bay of Bengal may be starting to take note of what is important now, recognising the effective work done in the likes of Odisha may now be serving as a blueprint for climate mitigation and adaptation. Critically, through food shelters and cutting-edge refuge constructions, Odisha earned endorsement from the United Nations. 

Mami Mizutori, of the UN Office for disaster risk reduction, said, “the lessons to be learned from Odisha’s example are the importance of strengthening disaster risk governance, investing in preparedness and scenario planning while spreading greater understanding of disaster risk among the public.” 

This underlines perfectly the state of play for those at risk of weather events like Cyclone Yaas moving forward across all of India. 

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