Features

Cyclone-wrecked Odisha needs science-backed rebuilding

The eastern Indian state, vulnerable to extreme cyclones, needs to reconstruct for the long term with a deeper involvement of the scientific community.

Alakananda Dasgupta & Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.71 Published online 5 June 2019

National Disaster Response Force personnel clearing off key roads in Odisha after cyclone Fani.

© NDRF

As Odisha recovers from the destruction of cyclone Fani, experts are urging the Indian state to rebuild with resilient infrastructure, urgent ecological repairs and evidence-based policies.

More than 1.2 million people were evacuated as Fani approached the Odisha coastline, but the job of helping the populace get back to their feet has only just begun, scientists and charities say.

In the past 20 years, the state has built more than 200 multipurpose cyclone shelters, executed public awareness campaigns and evacuation drills, and trained volunteers in first-aid techniques, safety and rescue operations.

But high intensity ‘Fani-type’ cyclonic storms are likely to hit the state every 15 to 20 years in the future, meaning action beyond the existing disaster risk reduction and management programmes will be vital.

Making science the backbone for reconstruction

Despite an historic tug of war with extreme weather phenomena such as storms, floods and heat, Odisha still does not have a science-backed policy to guide its reconstruction programmes, experts say.

In the absence of a robust science and technology department or ministry, the administration informs itself through national or international agencies, and ad-hoc appointees.

“In the absence of scientific inputs, many unsustainable decisions are taken,” says Uma Charan Mohanty, a visiting professor at Indian Institute of Technology Bhubaneswar. For instance, Fani uprooted most of the full-grown trees in Bhubaneswar that had been planted after a super cyclone that struck in 1999 simply because their roots grazed the ground, unable to penetrate the rocky soil underneath. A deeper drill to place saplings could have ensured these trees had a firmer footing, he says.

Although the state deserves kudos for pre-cyclone management, it needs to embrace resilient construction to tackle cyclones of this scale says Saudamini Das, an economist at New Delhi-based Institute of Economic Growth, who has worked extensively on cyclones in Odisha. “If Odisha rebuilds keeping in mind a 100-year time horizon, the structures should be so strong that they are able to bear 3-4 such cyclones.”

NASA released these pictures showing power outages in Odisha's capital Bhubaneswar after cyclone Fani.

© Lauren Dauphin/NASA Earth Observatory 

A model to emulate is Japan’s earthquake-resilient reconstruction. The Japanese culture of readiness stems from hard-earned lessons the country learnt from the 1923 Tokyo quake. It includes evacuation drills for school children, an efficiently designed water drainage system in coastal cities like Osaka, advanced coastal defenses to reduce the risk of a storm surge and strict regulations for construction of private buildings.

In June 2016, India embraced the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 by releasing a National Disaster Management Plan. One of the tenets of the Framework is ‘Build Back Better’.

Going beyond cyclone-resistant shelters would be the next step, says Shekhar Mande, who heads India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). One of CSIR’s labs, the Structural Engineering Research Centre in Chennai designed the shelters that housed millions during cyclone Phailin in 2013, and Fani.

Mande says technological interventions such as mobile water purification vans developed at the Central Salt and Marine Research Institute in Bhavnagar, Gujarat and hundreds of thousands of food packets generated by CSIR laboratories were deployed immediately in the affected coastal villages. The state administration does need inputs to beef up rural housing and scientists from SERC and the Central Building Research Institute in Roorkee should now be called to action.

“For fishermen and farmers, life must go on,” Mande says. CSIR has been distributing aromatic plants such as lemongrass and citronella to farmers living in high salinity areas, he says, so that they can quickly get robust, highly-priced yields of aroma oils. “Science does need to be woven into all future policy making for the weather-battered state,” he says.

Mohanty also recommends setting up of better meteorological, geophysical and hydrological observation capabilities in the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar-Puri stretch to augment the state’s weather monitoring.

Civil society organisations have heightened the demand for underground power and water supply in the state to ensure that normal life is not thrown off-gear every time a cyclone hits.

“If there’s unusual rainfall in London, there’s a scientific committee probing the how and why to inform the government how to handle its fallouts scientifically,” Mohanty says. It's time Odisha woke up to the need for more scientific handling of extreme weather events and thought beyond the next cyclone.

Ecological damage: the last frontier of repair

Aside from the build environment, ensuring the ecosystem more widely can recover from storm damage is another vital priority for scientists.

Ecology tends to be neglected in recovery and restoration says Preeti Tewari, an associate professor of geography at the University of Delhi. “Repairing ecosystems is probably last on our list of priorities and rarely gets completed before the next disaster strikes,” she says.

A view of the lost green cover along an arterial road in Odisha's capital Bhubaneswar before (top) and after (bottom) cyclone Fani.
Fani’s high velocity winds uprooted more than 4.5 million trees in the Balukhand wildlife sanctuary, which lines the coast between the tourist towns of Puri and Konark.

“Loss of tree cover makes the area prone to erosion by wind and rain. This also means loss of animal habitats,” Tewari says. The sanctuary is home to spotted deer, wolves and monitor lizards.

Ecosystems generally eventually self-repair – trees regrow if not uprooted, as had happened after the 1999 super cyclone, says Saudamini Das. But in the short run, only a massive plantation drive can help, she points out.

Das says a vulnerable state like Odisha should have at least a 1–2 km buffer of either mangroves or other native trees or sand dunes along the coastline to minimize cyclone impacts. “The 1999 super cyclone had come in October and by summer many trees had their foliage back. Unfortunately, Fani came mid-summer and people will suffer great hardship due to soaring temperatures,” she says.

Fani also created four new inlets from the Bay of Bengal into Chilika Lake, one of the world’s largest brackish water lagoons. Susanta Nanda, the chief executive of the Chilika Development Authority (CDA) says this will increase the salinity of the lagoon. “The immediate impact could be on migration of fish into the lagoon.” Nanda says one positive spin off, however, will be that freshwater weeds which were proliferating in the lagoon due to its decreased salinity in recent times, will now decay. This would help brackish water species to thrive better.

After cyclones Hudhud (2014) and Phailin (2013), Das says, she interviewed the region’s fishermen, who reported very low and small size fish catch for nearly 6 months. “The damage to marine environment from cyclones, while temporary, is very strong in the short run. People dependent on marine environment for a livelihood are obviously the worst affected.”

Tewari adds that storm surges erode coastal sands, sweeping them into the ocean. This damages beaches and dune ecosystems – a damage that takes years of natural restoration to be reversed.

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