Climate Change and Conflict By Robert Mizo  |  30 June, 2021

Living with the Storm: The Human Cost of Cyclones

Image: Shutterstock

India witnessed two devastating cyclones, Tauktae and Yaas, hitting west and east coasts within a span of two weeks in May 2021. Such extreme weather events impact the lives of millions, both immediately and long after they have passed. The calamities occurred simultaneously as the second phase of the Covid-19 pandemic was claiming lives in the thousands daily. The cyclones and the pandemic together presented an ominous future of an unmitigated climate change.

Increasing frequency and intensity

India has experienced increased extreme weather events in recent years. The western coasts, which historically do not witness many cyclonic storms, have begun to experience them to the point where human lives and habitats are endangered. Cyclones Vayu (2019), Nisarga (2020) and Tauktae (2021) have hit the region in recent years. Scientists attribute the rise in cyclonic activities on the western coast of India to a warming Arabian Sea, the average temperature of which has risen by up to 1.4 degree Celsius in the recent decades. Not only have cyclones become more frequent, those experienced  on the Indian coasts are intensifying at a greater speed, adding to the challenges in preparing and evacuating those in their path. The total number of districts affected by cyclones has tripled since 2005 according to a study by the Council for Energy, Environment and Water. The centre also reports that the increase in cyclonic frequency and intensity witnessed are due to micro-climatic changes.

Analysing the costs

A report by Christian Aid, a London-based humanitarian agency, pegged the number of people killed by floods alone in India in 2020 at 2067, the highest annual global toll due to climate change-induced events. Further, according to a report by the Centre for Science and Environment, 2020 alone saw the displacement of 3.9 million people in India due to climate-induced ‘disasters and conflicts’.

Together, Tauktae and Yaas claimed approximately 200 lives; many others remain missing. The human cost of these events multiplies exponentially when one includes the millions who are evacuated from their homes and lands; upon their eventual return they may find homes, villages and lands have been washed away or rendered uninhabitable. In the cyclone-prone regions of the eastern coast, many running from cyclone Yaas in 2021 were still rebuilding their lives from the destruction of the previous year's cyclone Amphan.

The relatively low reported death toll belies the extent of the real impact of the cyclones. Apart from loss of lives, those affected suffer irreparable loss of property and livelihood. Millions have been rendered homeless on both coasts and their livelihoods snatched overnight. Many farmers have lost their farmlands to salt water intrusion. These lands will take a few crop cycles before they become cultivable again. Millions of hectares of farms and cash crops are reported to have been destroyed on both coasts. The cyclones have also destroyed fisheries and freshwater ponds on which millions depend for livelihood. A similar number of fisherfolk have lost equipment and fishing boats.

The cyclones caused extensive damage to power supply systems in the affected regions, disrupting access to electricity for days afterwards. There were reports of hospitals treating critical Covid-19 patients running out of power, adding to the precarity of the situation. Another fallout experienced in the aftermath of the cyclones has been the lack of drinking water. With water supply infrastructures destroyed and water sources contaminated with saltwater, victims of the cyclones struggle for potable water. This heightens their vulnerability as it accelerates the spread of water- and vector-borne diseases, such as Diarrhoeal diseases, Hepatitis A and E, Malaria, and Dengue, which usually follow such disasters. Apart from physiological health, natural disasters take a toll on the mental health of survivors. While there has been no assessment of the psychological impact on the victims yet, one can imagine the crippling long-term effects of the trauma caused by loss and fear. The gendered impact of natural disasters needs highlighting. Women and adolescent girls are usually the worst affected groups due to their poorer socio-economic conditions which heighten their vulnerability to gender-based violence, health issues, and mortality.

These frequent climate events have a multitudinal impact. While the immediate effects cause the tragic loss of human lives and property, the long-term effects are equally dire. Shortage of resources and livelihood opportunities trap millions in poverty. Spread of post-disaster diseases cause medical facilities to be stretched thin, worsening living standards of victims for years. Post-disaster resource crunch and the accompanying fragile socio-economic conditions endanger the overall human security in the affected regions.

The economic cost analyses of the cyclones have begun to emerge and the impact has been severe. Risk Management Solutions India (RMSI), working on climate risk management, has pegged the loss incurred by cyclone Tauktae to about Rs 15,000 crore (US$2.1 Billion approximately). Cyclone Yaas is estimated to have caused economic damage to the tune of US$7-8 billion in affected regions. The GDPs of the affected states are expected to face an acute slump. While major industries such as airlines, railways, power and telecommunication sectors experienced huge losses, small businesses and the agricultural sector were disproportionately affected. Governments at both the centre and state levels have announced relief packages to help rehabilitate the lives of the victims, costing the exchequer billions of taxpayers’ money.

The road ahead

Scientists have unequivocally agreed that the increasing frequency and intensity of cyclones are due to the rapid heating of the Indian ocean. It is inescapable that extreme weather events are to be a part of our lives in the coming years. While mitigating climate change is an unavoidable collective duty of all countries, by arresting the rise in global temperatures to hopefully abate climate change, adapting to already occurring changes is an immediate concern. Governments have made remarkable progress in disaster risk reduction as evident in the minimised death toll, extensive evacuation programmes, and rescue and relief operations. However, there remain important tasks at hand. Climate vulnerability assessment needs to be undertaken on a regular basis to enhance preparedness. Climate resilient infrastructure such as raising embankments and barrages in vulnerable regions should be integrated into coastal management plans. Institutional arrangements such as an independent national level commission on climate risk could help in boosting preparedness and provide direction to effective climate adaptation in the country. How the political leadership prioritises these concerns will determine the security of millions of Indians who still live in close proximity to nature.

Robert Mizo is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delhi, Kamala Nehru College. He holds a PhD from the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi in Climate Change Policy studies. His research interests include Climate Change and Security, Climate Change Politics, and International Environmental Politics. He has published and presented on the above topics at both national and international platforms.