The Front Lines of Climate Change: Cyclone Yaas and the Sundarbans

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Last month, cyclone Yaas made landfall in the Indian state of Odisha. Due to a full moon tidal surge, the storm’s most severe impact occurred in  the Sundarbans, the world largest mangrove forest, spanning parts of eastern India and Bangladesh.

Yaas is only the latest cyclone to form in the Bay of Bengal during  the last year. According to an article in The Times of India, Rising surface temperature at sea behind frequent cyclones: Experts:

In the past 12 months, there have been four cyclonic storms in Bay of Bengal — severe cyclone Amphan (May 16-21), severe cyclone Nivar (Nov 22-26), cyclonic storm Burevi (Nov 30-Dec 5) and Yaas (May 23-27). Climate scientists say the cyclogenesis or triggering of very severe cyclonic storms in Bay of Bengal is a result of climate change. The water around the Indian sub-continent is warmer than usual. The threshold value for sea surface temperatures (SSTs) for formation of cyclones is 28°C, but SST over the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean 30°C-32°C.

These storms haven’t caused many deaths – nothing approaching the half million that died when cyclone Bhola struck Bengal in 1970. Both the Indian and Bangladeshi governments have developed a system for warning people and evacuating them safely to shelters. So far, this system has continued to function well, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to an article Cyclone Yaas: Record evacuation saves lives in Sundarbans but not livelihoods in Down to Earth:

According to state government sources, nearly 1.5 million people were evacuated before and during the disaster into 14,000 flood shelters, both formal and temporary ones.

The evacuation of about 500,000 people during Cyclone Amphan was the record in West Bengal before Yaas. Around 0.7 million people each were evacuated during cyclones Phani and Hudhud, which mainly affected Odisha.

“We planned carefully after Amphan. We enhanced our capacity, procured machinery and above all, the coordination has been very good under the leadership of the chief minister [Mamata Banerjee]. That did the trick,” state disaster management minister Javed Ahmed Khan claimed.

Experts are also attributing the success to the state government’s preparations. “This effort of the state government, with the chief minister leading from the front, particularly evacuating such a record number of people smoothly and that too during this pandemic period, is definitely praiseworthy,” Nasir Ateeq, a disaster management expert attached with an international organisation, told this reporter May 27.

Locals in the Sundarbans however pointed out that a heightened level of awareness among people, especially after Amphan, did the trick.

“People, who earlier refused to go to the flood shelters, complied with government directives this time, which minimised casualties,” a non-profit worker from Sagar island, said.

This appears to me to be another win for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose All Trinamool Congress Party recently trounced the efforts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to seize power in her state (see Mamata Banerjee’s TMC Retains West Bengal, Shutting Out Modi’s BJP from Taking Power in the State). Her success in managing the Yaas evacuation only further strengthens the still long shot  possibility that she might be able to spearhead a national ani-Modi coalition. She’s been both lauded and sometimes criticised for leading from the front, whether strolling through open-air Kolkata food markets, enmeshed and maintaining social distance, or memorably, when during the course of construction, a flyover collapsed in Kolkata, rushing to the scene, and ‘directing’ rescue efforts from her emergency operations centre: a folding chair, plonked next to a table.

Damage to Homes and Livelihoods

Deaths aren’t the only devastation the storms cause. The homes and livelihoods of people in the low-lying Sundarbans have been particularly hard-hit. According to an article In photos: In the Sundarbans, Cyclone Yaas leaves flooded farmland and devastated lives in Scroll:

Islands in the Sundarbans are a protected by embankments, which run around 3,500 km. More than 134 embankments were breached, the state government said, devastating many villages. As the embankments were damaged, previous farmland was destroyed as saline water flooded in.

Tens of thousands of homes in the region were damaged, as were livestock and poultry farms. The West Bengal government estimated by the cost of damages caused by Cyclone Yaas at Rs 20,000 crore.

Rising sea-surface temperatures may be the cause of the more frequent, intense cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, scientists say. Since 2007, there have been 16 major cyclones in the Bay of Bengal. Many islands in the Sundarbans, such as Mousuni, were already facing the threat due to the rapid sea-level rise.

I encourage readers to click on the Scroll link above, to see pictures of the devastation Yaas has caused.

Down to Earth provided further details:

The inhabitants of West Bengal’s Sundarbans region may have been saved from Cyclone Yaas due to timely evacuation. However, their livelihoods have been lost due to embankments in the region being breached.

People in at least one area of the world’s largest delta shared by India and Bangladesh used their own bodies to plug the breach in an embankment. However, with most of the region underwater currently, it will take a lot of time for shattered livelihoods to be revived.

The ‘human wall’ was made by people in the G Plot of Pathar Pratima block in the Sundarbans. As Yaas subsided May 26, 2021, residents noticed the embankment on the Jagaddal river adjoining Sitarampur village beginning to wobble.

Kalipada Das, a local, said:

The embankment adjoins agricultural land as well as residential plots. People quickly ran and tried to stop the water with whatever they could find, be it hay, plastic or tarpaulin. They even used their bodies to form a human chain. Others dug earth to plug the embankment.

However the embankment gave away during the next high tide.

“I am now in the G Plot area and can’t distinguish where the river ends and where land starts … It seems that rivers have completely swallowed Pathar Pratima. Many areas of Pathar Pratima are under water,” Samir Jana, member of the legislative assembly from Pathar Pratima told this reporter May 27.

Royal Bengal Tigers

Earning a livelihood in the Sundarbans is difficult, even without the pressures caused by climate change. Much of the delta is nature reserves, divided between India and Bangladesh, comprising two UNESCO World Heritage sites. Tourism from the Indian side is mainly day-trippers and weekenders from Kolkata (Calcutta), and birdwatchers.

Many are drawn by the prospect of seeing a royal Bengal tiger, a fearsome beast that drinks salt water, swims, and catches fish. Now that the number of tigers no longer reaches three figures, the India state of West Bengal in 2016  refocused its tourist promotion efforts, shifting away from touting its tigers – which most tourists would never see anyway – to highlighting the much more prevalent monitor lizards, crocodiles, four types of aquatic turtles, two types of freshwater dolphins, and numerous birds – including four types of kingfishers (see my article for The National, India and Bangladesh’s mysterious mangroves: The Sundarbans).

Alas for the people who live in the region, fatal encounters with tigers are not unknown and still kill dozens of people each year. Local honey collectors wear lurid masks on the back of their heads – to confuse tigers – which target that vulnerability – and thus deter attacks. Women trawl for tiger prawn seedlings, immersed to their waists, dragging large nets behind. They, too are sometimes attacked by tigers, or more frequently, by crocodiles or sharks. Exposure to  saline water causes skin problems for these women.

To these many natural hazards climate change has added the additional catastrophe of regular flooding by storm surges. These damage or destroy  homes and by soaking the ground with salt water, making farming more difficult, if not impossible. In the immediate wake of the storm, Banerjee estimated the storm damaged 500,000 homes and affected 10 million people, according to Down to Earth..

People may rebuild, but if flooding becomes a more regular occurrence, that task becomes increasingly difficult. And if the flooding pattern recurs or indeed accelerates, If the Sundarbans simply becomes uninhabitable, where will all these people go?

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  1. Fritzi

    Unfortunately for the people that need to go into the forrest to make their livelyhood, the Tigers seem to have increasingly figured out the masks and are no longer tricked or deterred by them.

      1. witters

        Thank you. So they might drink it – given no alternative – but it isn’t safe for them. And things are not, as the links say, looking good.

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