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Asia-Pacific

Early warning systems helped India, Bangladesh minimise Cyclone Fani death toll

media Aftermath of Cyclone Fani in Puri, India Reuters

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has praised India for its accuracy of early warnings and effective evacuation of people in Odisha ahead of Cyclone Fani that saved many lives.

To date, the death toll from the cyclone that hit first India and then neighbouring Bangladesh rose to 42 on Sunday.

Emergency teams are still racing to fix water supplies and roads that were devastated by Friday’s storm that landed first in India’s Odisha at 200 kilometres an hour before heading towards Bangladesh.

People move past a damaged vehicle after Cyclone Fani hit Puri, in the eastern state of Odisha, India, May 3, 2019 REUTERS/Stringer

Fani was the first summer cyclone to hit India’s Bay of Bengal coast in 43 years and only the third in the past 150 years Odisha state Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik noted.

In Odisha, thousands of trees and mobile phone towers were uprooted, while roofs were torn off by the storm. Many homes are still without power.

High risk

“Both Bangladesh and parts of coastal India are at high risk for climate-related disasters” says Nayma Qayum, a specialist on poverty and development in South Asia at Manhattanville College. “There are large, low-lying, densely-populated coastal areas that are also extremely poor.”

Although these regions do not see such extreme weather often, “floods, storms and river erosion are fairly common”. So when a cyclone of this intensity hits, storm surges push sea water inland, which then taints drinking water and destroys arable land.

Long-term effects will also require planning in conjunction with well-planned warning systems and evacuations to minimnize the initial hit.

Preparation

The UN did applaud India for its preparedness for Cyclone Fani, but Bangladesh also did a lot to stave off more damage through its forward-planning.

Both countries improved their early warning systems with text messages and alerts.

“While in the field in coastal Bangladesh, I’ve seen fishing communities rely on these texts as opposed to predicting the weather by observations” adds Qayum.

A fisherman carries his tools as he leaves for a safer place after tying his boats along the shore ahead of cyclone Fani in Peda Jalaripeta on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam, India, May 1, 2019. Reuters

In addition to early warnings in Bangladesh, Qayum describes a massive “NGO-infrastructure and multiple agencies, both government and non-government working on this” along with efforts from the army.

“The army has historically played a key role in disaster management and recovery efforts in Bangladesh" along with additional efforts from the coast guard, police and local officials.

Both countries learned hard lessons from previous experiences.

Back in 1999, the Super Cyclone hit what was then called Orissa – Odisha today- killing some 10,000 people.

It was considered one of the worst natural disasters in India.

And in 2007, Cyclone Sidr killed over 3000 in Bangladesh.

Lessons learned

Countries that are prone to natural disasters need to remain vigilant and prepared before an event touches it, even if it is a rare occurrence.

Clouds loom ahead of cyclone Fani in Visakhapatnam, India, May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

In the cases of India and Bangladesh, the international community can stand to learn from the way they “amped-up their disaster preparedness” says Qayum.

Due to its early warning systems, India was able to rapidly evacuate some 1.2 million people, thereby minimizing the death toll.

That mixed with improved forecasting models, public awareness campaigns and well-tested evacuation plans executed by some 60,000 responders and volunteers, all ensured that Odisha’s residents had a better chance of survival.

Relief efforts used sirens, loudspeakers and sent more than 20 million mobile messages to affected people in Bangladesh and India said special relief commissioner Bishnupada Sethi.

As more and more scientific reports flag climate change, more averse weather events are only like to continue rising.

The recent case of the tsunami in Indonesia last year in October is a perfect example of a country that is prone to such disasters, given it sits on the Ring of Fire, but its early warning system failed to notify people.

The World Bank has predicted that by 2050, we could see over 140 million people displaced due to climate-related events stresses Qayum.

Such events include infertile lands, non-potable water, and storm surges bringing salt water inland.

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