Cyclone Amphan and Covid-19 the recipe for a cascading disaster

In the immediate aftermath of Amphan, access to clean water for drinking and sanitation is of paramount importance.

Super Cyclone “Amphan”: Satellite detected inundated areas around Kolkata, West Bengal, India
Super Cyclone “Amphan”: Satellite detected inundated areas around Kolkata, West Bengal, India

Amidst the ongoing global pandemic that is ravaging India, West Bengal has witnessed its deadliest cyclone in decades. In what is known as a cascading disaster, relief work and rehabilitation are made even more difficult. Cyclone Amphan made landfall on 20 May and caused unprecedented havoc. The city of Kolkata witnessed four non-stop hours of intense winds (90-130 kmph) that evening. Elderly residents said they had never witnessed anything like this in their living memories.

Estimates of damage are yet to be confirmed, but a preliminary assessment by the state government puts the figure at USD 13 billion. Almost all standing crops have been destroyed. This comes as a double whammy after two months of Covid-19 related lockdowns when farmers have been unable to get fair prices for their crops due to disruptions in transportation. The worst affected area was the Sundarbans, where according to reports hundreds of villages were inundated and many buildings flattened. Preliminary reports also suggest that ponds supplying drinking water and agricultural fields have been contaminated with saline water.

The economy of the state will take a huge hit. Particularly vulnerable are the rural population. Agricultural income and remittance income had already plummeted due to Covid-19, and now widespread destruction of standing crops makes farmers even more vulnerable. Unless urgent—climate resilient—action is taken, the rural poor will face hunger and starvation.

There is a high likelihood that Cyclone Amphan was supercharged and picked up speed and energy due to the unprecedented high sea surface temperature (SST) of 32-34oC over the Bay of Bengal, as a result of human induced climate change. It is also highly likely that Bay of Bengal will experience more intense cyclones in the near future. And that calls for better preparedness and resilience building.

Parts of West Bengal, such as the fragile Sundarbans, have already reached the limits of adaptation. Local communities, already living on the edge, can do very little to adapt any further, except perhaps cultivate crops that are saline resistant. Here, the discourse needs to be in terms of compensation for loss and damage, which can then be used in enhancing the health of the mangrove forests which play an important role in mitigating cyclone related damage.

In other parts of the state, where land is available, and water is not saline, we will need to build further resilience to climate change. First, given the huge crop losses, the state could focus proactively on the provision of agricultural insurance products that insure crops against climate disasters. Since a majority of farmers have very small land holdings, alternative insurance protocols, such as insurance at the village level (instead of farmer level) needs to be thought through and implemented.

Second, assured irrigation is one of the best climate resilient tools to help farmers cope with rainfall variability. We have seen that aman paddy, which was entirely rainfed in the past, now increasingly needs several irrigations over its cultivation season, because of increasing variability in monsoon rains. Assured irrigation is also needed for cash crops like vegetables. Thankfully West Bengal is blessed with water resources – both surface as well as groundwater. The state could also encourage farmers to irrigate more intensively by reducing electricity tariffs. West Bengal has one of the highest agricultural electricity tariffs in India, making it difficult for farmers to use relatively abundant groundwater resources more intensively. This also highlights an opportunity to move to cleaner energy such as solar irrigation pumps.

Third, India has a provision for universal rural employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) which stipulates that the state is legally obliged to provide a maximum 100 days of employment at going market wage rates to every Indian who demands such manual labor-based employment. In West Bengal, the upward limit for this could be revised to cover 150-200 days of work. In addition, the list of permissible works also needs to be expanded to include work on private land. This will help in two ways. First, it will provide gainful employment to millions of migrant laborers who have returned (or will return) due to the Covid-19 crisis. Second, it will help rebuild village roads, ponds, community infrastructure, and residential houses that have been completely destroyed due to Amphan. It is estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 trees may have been uprooted due to the cyclone. MGNREGA funds can be used for reforestation. The state government could actively lobby the Central government to both increase the number of workdays allowed under MGNREGA, and also to enlarge the list of work allowed under it. A major part of this work can be water harvesting related work – the state already has a program called “Jal Dhoro Jal Bhoro”. Boosting it could ensure that intensive groundwater use for agriculture in the state is also supported through intensive groundwater recharge program.

In the immediate aftermath of Amphan, access to clean water for drinking and sanitation is of paramount importance. Access to clean water is also important for coping with a pandemic like Covid-19, and access to secure irrigation is needed for climate resilient agriculture. Access to water and sustainable water management will play a central role as the state builds back better. It is here that bilateral and multilateral donors, including the Green Climate Fund can provide support. The CGIAR also needs to intensify its research activities in the Bengal Delta which is a climate hotspot, as well as home to millions of poor people. The state of West Bengal faces a bleak future, and the international community needs to step in with assistance urgently.

This was first published as an Op-Ed in the Anandabazar Patrika.

Aditi Mukherji is a Principal Researcher and Research Group Leader of Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience at the International Water Management Institute, New Delhi Office. She is also one of the Coordinating Lead Author of IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report. She lives in Kolkata.

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