Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Learning from Disasters

There were dead bodies all over the place. I had never seen so many dead bodies in my life. It all seemed like a scene from a disaster movie, but unfortunately it was real. The people lying dead were not actors, but real people like you and me, who must have been too busy worrying about the rigmarole of life just a couple of days before. Human life seemed so worthless and futile. I am talking about the super cyclone that hit coastal Orissa on 29th October, 1999. The epicenter of the cyclone was Paradip - the town where I grew up, and where my parents lived then. I was in Sambalpur (a town in Western Orissa that is about 400 kms away from Paradip) then, but rushed home anxious about my family's safety. Along with me were few of my colleagues who also had their families in coastal Orissa. With parts of roads washed away or blocked with uprooted trees, it took us forever to reach our homes, but we all made it. We all were very lucky. Our families had just survived a super cyclone that took over 10,000 human lives (as per official reports). The winds in this super cyclone had reached 300kms/hr (or over 185 miles per hour).
I was reminded of the 1999 "Paradip super cyclone" when I saw the images of cyclone hit Myanmar today. According to the Associated Press report, up to 100,000 people may have died in this recent cyclone. The winds were much slower in Myanmar, according to news reports reaching up to 180kms/hr or 110 miles per hour. Yet the death toll is ten times higher than that of the Paradip super cyclone. The greater devastation is because of the higher storm surge that occurred in Myanmar. Storm surge is a phenomenon associated with the cyclonic storm in which the sea level rises by several feet and sea water enters into coastal areas causing widespread devastation. Storm surge was less in Paradip because of the sea being very deep near Paradip. If the water was shallow in Paradip, as it is in many coastal regions, then the devastation would have been many times more extensive.
The problem with natural disasters is that they are easier to reconcile with emotionally. You may ask: "Why should that be a problem? Is it not a good thing when we are better at getting over our losses?" I agree, it is better for our psychological wellbeing to be able to rationalize and reconcile, but when we accept these disasters as "natural" we also lose complete control over their future recurrence. Even scientifically speaking, these cyclones and super cyclones are not completely natural; they are at least partly man made. Yes, we made these cyclones and super cyclones, and it's we who have killed hundreds of thousands of people. The way we have been emitting green house gases, and the way we are continuing on deforestation, these so called "natural disasters" are bound to happen, only more frequently. Over the past decade, the number of cyclones and hurricanes have increased dramatically around the world. Global temperatures are rising, and its effects are very pronounced in at least some regions of the world. Back home in Orissa, I remember being able to play for hours in the sun during the middle of the day in summer. Now, it is impossible to do that even in the winter months - the heat is just too much. More than a score people have already died this year of heat strokes in Orissa, even before the advent of summer. I don't expect the deaths to increase substantially in the summer, because people take more precautions and avoid being outdoors when the environment gets extremely hot, but it translates into substantially lower income for poor people such as rickshaw pullers, coolies, and laborers. Moreover, the low pressure zones created because of the extreme heat, only generates more cyclones, causing further devastation.
When a storm or cyclone hits a place, we usually assess the damage in terms of loss of life, and destruction of property. What reports miss out the most is the loss of vegetation. Millions of trees get uprooted in severe storms, which may give the timber contractors a field day, but these lost trees only further the chances of such cyclones happening again.
Few weeks or months down the line, people will forget about the cyclone of Myanmar. Even the survivors will get on with their lives, which is a good thing, but the lost trees never get replanted. The color green is fast disappearing from our earth, first due to deforestation, and next due to the man-made "natural" disasters. If we are to save the earth - our home, we have to plant trees in wide scale. Cutting emissions is great, but not enough. We will be fighting a losing battle, unless we work on replacing the green house gases with the solid green of trees.

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