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Lessons from Hudhud

EAS Sarma (eassarma@gmail.com ) is a former Union Power Secretary.

One cannot prevent nature from expressing its fury, but one can prepare better and be able to respond quickly after the event. Neither was in evidence in Visakhapatnam before or after Hudhud struck on 12 October. With climate change a reality, there will be more such events like Hudhud. 

Satellite imagery makes it possible these days to monitor the temperature and pressure changes in the atmosphere and accurately track the formation and movement of cyclonic storms anywhere in the world. That was the case with Hudhud which originated in the Andaman Sea around 6 October 2014 amd touched Visakhapatnam at 11.30 am on 12 October, causing unprecedented havoc. If the first spell of the cyclone brought disaster, its second spell brought more of it to level whatever that was left. Denuded of its greenery, Visakhapatnam looks like a ghost city today.

Had the government taken heed of the four to five days' notice given by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and acted fast, the inconvenience which the citizens of Visakhapatnam have been put to could perhaps have been reduced. While Hudhud left no one untouched, it dealt a debilitating impact on the poor in the city's slums.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its 2007 report, stated [1], ““future tropical cyclones will become more intense, with larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with ongoing [sea surface temperature increases]”.  In view of this, one should anticipate an overall increase in the frequency and intensity of Hudhud-like extreme weather conditions in the coming years, plan for containing their damage and insulate coastal urban clusters and villages from their destructive impact. While the government's immediate emphasis is and should be on relief and rehabilitation, it should also evaluate its own responses to the cyclone with a view to draw lessons for the future.

When the tsunami struck India's east coast in 2004, it was the mangroves that existed near the mouth of River Krishna that saved several villages. At one time, Visakhapatnam's coastline was richly endowed with mangroves, casuarinas and a score of other durable native species of vegetation. Its hills were covered with a thick vegetation that used to absorb the intensity of high-velocity winds.  In the name of “development” -- a euphemism for destructive industrial units, successive governments have facilitated a removal of  the green cover, rendering the city vulnerable to greater cyclone damage. This, coupled with an open defiance of the environmental laws in force and a blatant violation of the environmental norms embedded in the statutory Master Plan of the Visakhapatnam Urban Development Authority (VUDA), has increased the city's vulnerability to high-velocity cyclones.

CRZ Rules Ignored

The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) requirements are a sine qua non for protecting the precious coastal environment of Visakhapatnam. For example, the CRZ prohibits mechanical pumping of water through borewells within 500 meters from the High Tide Line (HTL), as it will cause the salinity of the sea to contaminate the ground water aquifers. This rule is wantonly breached, rendering the local ground water sources saline. This, coupled with excessive depletion and also urban pollution, deprived the citizens of access to ground water which could have provided an alternate source when municipal water supplies failed when the cyclone disrupted power availability.

Conserving mangroves, raising casuarina and other durable species of plantations along the coastline and regulating quarrying over the hills should therefore form part of the city's future plans. The laws to protect the environment need to be respected, rather than held in contempt. Technologies for renewing waste building material and the use of alternate building material can help minimise quarrying of the hills. The focus of future engineering research should be on this aspect

When Hudhud hit the city, its municipality, with no elections in sight, had no regular Commissioner to run it. There was no regular Commissioner of Police to guide the law and order machinery. VUDA was equally headless. Despite the timely warnings on the impending cyclone, no effort was made to post suitable officers to fill these crucial vacancies. To some extent, this affected the functional effectiveness of these important institutions when it was most needed. One glaring shortcoming in the relief operations this time is the absence of the services of the Signals Wing of the military who could have restored electricity supplies with their equipment. The moment there were warnings of an approaching cyclone, the government should have triggered such interventions automatically.

People Respond

During calamities, it is the spontaneous response of the people and the capacity of the local democratic institutions that count a great deal.  Soon after the cyclone, it was the residents, supported by several self-help groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that felled the fallen trees and cleared the debris.

Andhra Pradesh has a law providing for area sabhas/ ward committees in towns but the law has remained only on paper. Similarly, gram sabhas in villages are in existence but they are not adequately supported. Had these institutions been fully equipped and empowered to take decisions, the relief operations would have been far more effective. Strengthening the local democratic institutions is a pivotal requirement in any disaster management approach.

While a Hudhud-like cyclone can cause untold human misery, its lessons should help the government in enhancing its own state of preparedness to contain damage from the future cyclones. One can only hope that the lessons of Hudhud are not forgotten.

 

Notes

[1] http://centerforoceansolutions.org/climate/impacts/cumulative-impacts/storm-intensity/

(This article is a modified version of the article “Constructive lessons from a destructive cyclone” published in Business Standard 20 October 2014)

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