While India has been dealing with the damaging impacts of COVID-19 it now faces a new threat from super cyclone “Amphan”, which hit the eastern states of Odisha and West Bengal on 20 May.
The cyclone’s effects are particularly being felt in the coastal regions of the state of West Bengal, an Under2 Coalition member. Not only is Amphan the strongest category 5 India has witnessed in decades, it is also a time when state officials in West Bengal and the neighbouring state of Odisha face the challenge of maintaining social distancing while evacuating millions to safety.
VULNERABLE COMMUNITIES BEING DISPROPORTIONATELY AFFECTED
Eco-sensitive areas and vulnerable communities are often the most affected by environmental crises and extreme weather events such as cyclones. With winds of up to 185km/h, and storm surges up to 17ft high, super-cyclone Amphan has destroyed fishing villages, roads, infrastructure and power lines.
Amphan has caused untold damage to districts surrounding the Sundarbans – a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to the world’s largest mangrove forest. This area is a crucial carbon sink, absorbing 40 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, and it acts as a ‘shield’ for the surrounding land and its people. It has been under threat from sea level rise and increasingly violent cyclones for years, but this is now worse than ever.
The Sundarbans are rich in biodiversity – supporting several critically endangered, endangered, and vulnerable species. It is home to the Royal Bengal tiger, estuarine crocodiles, olive ridley turtles, the Ganges river dolphin and the Indian python, as well as the sundari mangrove trees from which the delta gets its name. Cyclone Amphan has caused untold devastation in this area and has left landscapes in the coastal districts of North and South 24 Parganas almost unrecognizable. Away from the coast, the districts of East Medinipur, West Medinipur, Howrah, and Hooghly have also been badly affected.
As well as wildlife, the delta is home to millions of people: mainly farmers, fishermen, and honey gatherers, who are dependent on agriculture and the mangrove ecosystem. Although the cyclone was successfully predicted by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and state authorities were able to evacuate people to government shelters, thousands of people have been left homeless. This has exacerbated the extreme difficulties faced by a state already struggling with the impacts of COVID-19.
With sea water entering agricultural land, officials now fear more than 200,000 farmers could be severely affected. Rising salinity will put tens of thousands out of work in the Sunderbans - as happened after the less powerful Cyclone Aila in 2009. This is one of the worst outcomes of Amphan and will need proactive intervention and funds. Even then, the damage could take months if not years to reverse. Also, unlike in 2009, people affected do not have the option of migrating to Kolkata or other cities in search of work, because of COVID-19. In fact a reverse migration has been taking place in India, with tens of thousands of people returning to their home states and villages.
RELATIONSHIP WITH CLIMATE CHANGE
Although West Bengal is prone to cyclones during this time of year, the high intensity of Amphan has almost certainly been exacerbated by man-made climate change. The latest report by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecast an increase in the severity and intensification of cyclones in coming years for this reason. Lead Author of the IPCC Ocean and Cryosphere Chapter, Roxy Mathew Koll, states “Our research shows that high ocean temperatures are conducive for rapid intensification of cyclones in the North Indian Ocean”.
West Bengal was just starting to plan its recovery from the impacts of COVID-19 when Cyclone Amphan hit. This has understandably caused unimaginable distress and the relief efforts will need to be intense. Importantly the event has also underscored, once again, the vulnerabilities of local communities and regions to such disasters. Those contributing the least to climate change are almost certain to be the worst affected by it. We need to work together to keep global temperature rises to well below 2 degrees and ensure that the most vulnerable people and landscapes are protected through urgent, international efforts for our climate.