VIEW: Cyclone Nargis —Saleem H Ali
The probability of a super-cyclone hitting Karachi in the next decade is growing and we all need to be better prepared lest we suffer the fate of Burma. Lessons learned from the earthquake relief effort are applicable here as well but the scale of devastation in a cyclone can often be far worse than an earthquake
After years of languishing under despotism, the people of Burma (or Myanmar as the military junta prefers to call the country) were hit with more misfortune. Defying its floral name, “Cyclone Nargis” thrashed the beleaguered country with winds in excess of 250 kilometres per hour last week and has left more than 23,000 people dead and an additional 50,000 or more missing.
The full loss of life may exceed the deadly Kashmir earthquake of 2005 which is estimated to have caused 76,000 deaths. A confluence of problems beset the country and made it vulnerable to this kind of cataclysmic natural disaster.
Burma’s rulers have consolidated their power through marginalising much of the population, particularly in rural areas, relegating villagers to lives of abject poverty. The Irrawady Delta and surrounding areas once had rich mangrove forests that acted as a natural buffer.
They have been wantonly deforested for firewood or for commercial shrimp farming. Storm surges that are often the most catastrophic aspect of cyclones and similar in scope to a tsunami are slowed in force and ferocity by mangroves.
Even Burma’s own minister for relief and resettlement, Maung Maung Swe, has blamed more deaths on the cyclone’s storm surge rather than the winds themselves. Hence the impact of environmental devastation on crisis management cannot be underestimated.
Pakistanis should remember the autumn of 1970 when an enormous cyclone hit present-day Bangladesh and the same level of deforestation in the Sunderban mangroves at the time led to a mind-boggling half-a-million deaths.
A year later, Bangladesh became an independent country and to their credit have since then learned the lessons of this devastation. The Sunderbans have been allowed to re-grow with conservation efforts. And despite a rise in population, the severity of casualties in such cyclones has been greatly reduced in the Ganges delta region because the Sunderbans have gone through a major conservation campaign since 1970. The area has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and the Bangladeshi and Indian governments have committed to their conservation through the establishment of protected areas. While there are some continuing concerns about illegal harvesting activities, the situation is certainly far improved in many ways with regard to conservation measures.
Pakistan has so far been spared many serious cyclones that scour the Indian Ocean but with impending climate change, it is quite plausible that more storms will occur in the Western arm of the ocean that we call the Arabian Sea.
In 2007, the citizens of Oman were shocked to be hit by a cyclone in June of 2007 which caused considerable damage to the petrochemical infrastructure of the country. Cyclone Gonu spared Karachi but a cursory look at the map will show that this was a close call for our coastal city and environs that house more than 20 million residents.
Pakistan’s mangroves in the Indus delta deserve care for conservation as well. Estimates from the government show that mangroves cover approximately 129,000 ha in the Indus Delta and about 3,000 ha on the Balochistan Coast in the Miani Hor, Kalmat Khor, and Gawatar Bay areas. The Worldwide Fund for Nature and numerous other conservation organisations are trying their best to conserve these areas but the new government should be prepared for crisis management of a cyclonic scale in years to come.
The probability of a super-cyclone hitting Karachi in the next decade is growing and we all need to be better prepared lest we suffer the fate of Burma. Lessons learned from the earthquake relief effort are applicable here as well but the scale of devastation in a cyclone can often be far worse than an earthquake in urban areas such as Karachi because the impact area can span more than five hundred miles whereas earthquakes are highly localised.
The good news is that we usually have some warnings about the onset of such storms of at least a few days through satellite imaging. However, a lack of preparedness in the face of Hurricane Katrina in the United States showed that even a developed country without appropriate planning can face enormous challenges. (Cyclonic storms in the Atlantic are called hurricanes and in the South Pacific are called Typhoons but they are all essentially the same kind of storms.)
Almost three years after the storm hit New Orleans, much of the city is still in ruins. Burma will take years to recover from the storm as well and deserves the help of the international community.
This may also be a time for alerting the world to the grave inequalities in the country, just as Katrina was a wake-up call for the world to see the plight of impoverished African-Americans in Louisiana. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, cyclones are times of reflection about how helpless we humans are in the face of nature’s fury despite all our technologies. They also act as an awesome and awful reminder that environmental concerns are not just a luxury issue but rather permeate every aspect of human security.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org