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The Tenth Anniversary +  

This month we observe the 10th anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. A lot of change has happened along the coast. We have learnt a lot too in the last ten years and our attitude towards disasters has changed.

Disbelief and shock – two prominent responses when the news about the tsunami hitting the coast first came in. Some of the images are still fresh in mind – the disbelief that on a warm clear day, there were reports of water entering coastal hamlets. How could that be when there was no cyclone in the offing? The rush towards the coast with relief supplies as the scale of destruction got known. The initial chaos followed by coordination and organized response.

What have we learnt in the last decade?
First of all, that a phenomenon called ‘tsunami’ exists. That it is a wave generated (most often) by an undersea earthquake. That tsunamis have hit the Indian coasts many times in the past, but memory being what it is, few remember such rare events. That we can be forewarned about tsunamis – Early Warning Systems have been set up for the Indian Ocean region and have been able to forecast accurately whether we will or won’t be hit by a tsunami when there is an undersea earthquake near Indonesia. The latest proof was just two days ago when a 7.1 magnitude earthquake occurred under the Molucca Sea near Halmahera in Indonesia. Yes, initially we were sceptical – we did not trust the ability of buoys in the deep sea to be able to give us adequate warning. But looks like things have settled down and people have become a little trusting of the ITEWS.

Enforcing Norms +  

Enforcing Norms
Early this month, Cyclone Hudhud wreaked havoc over the beautiful city of Visakhapatnam, and parts of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. It is believed to be the most destructive cyclone ever to hit India because the total damage costs are expected to be at least Rs7000 Crores. Rebuilding must focus on enforcement of norms.

The Very Severe Cyclonic Storm Hudhud which crossed Andhra Pradesh on 12th October not only wreaked havoc over coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha but triggered a blizzard in Nepal apart from causing heavy rain in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. Most tragic was the fact that the Cyclone Warning Centre in Visakhapatnam had to be shut down just as the cyclone was making landfall! The wind tore through the buildings, ripping off Vizag airport’s roof and resulting in bricks flying through fourth floor windows apart from shattering glass of modern buildings. Tall girders, streetlights bent like matchsticks, fallen trees and debris everywhere. There was even a video of a car flying from the top of a showroom prompting someone who did not know the cause to ask if this was some new flying car test. What trees were left standing were stripped of their leaves and branches that could be torn off. A retired English professor who has lived there for 75 years said that she had never seen the likes of it before. After the cyclone, Vizag went for days without power and water and telecom facilities.

Most of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha are no strangers to cyclones. The R&R apparatus, cyclone shelters, evacuation procedures and so on are quite organized. The IMD did a fantastic job by predicting the track of the cyclone well in advance. Yet a lot of people were not prepared – one lady said that they were warned about the cyclone, but were not told to be prepared with candles and such emergency stock! Had Visakhapatnam grown a little complacent over the decades since it had not experienced such fury over many decades?

Cyclone Nilofar Newslinks +  

Cyclone Hudhud Newslinks +  

Smart, Resilient or Both? +  

Rapid urbanization worldwide has resulted in a steady stream of people moving into towns and cities. From around 11 per cent in 1901, it is now closer to 31 percent in India. The reasons for the move are many – from economic opportunities to better infrastructure availability and today, the impacts of impacts of ‘development’ and ‘climate change’ that are turning fallow or barren large areas of agricultural land and forcing many to become climate refugees.

Cities have been considered as a drain on the areas around them. However, cities can be made largely self-sustaining. They may have challenging environmental and social issues but they have two important resources – plenty of innovative ideas and money. A couple of months ago, the government announced a plan to set up 100 smart cities across the country. A smart city is supposed to be an urban area where economic development and activity are sustainable. Information technology is the principal infrastructure and the basis for providing essential services for citizen. For an increasingly tech savvy generation, it is clearly the way to go.

Plastics in Crab Gills +  

Microplastics are particles that are less than 5mm across, so tiny that wastewater treatment systems (where they exist) are unable to capture them. These are formed when plastic items fragment and disintegrate – that depends on various parameters and time.  But they also are manufactured – for use in consumer (personal care) products as ‘microbeads’ and slough off from washing of synthetic textiles. The next time you use a personal care product such as toothpaste, deodorant, cleansers with a powdery feel or exfoliating face washes, be aware that you may be using microplastics. While natural alternatives do exist – from oatmeal to mitti, plastics are cheaper but they have a major environmental cost.
 
Microplastics have been found to contaminate the sea surface of Australian waters at a concentration of more than 4000 pieces per square kilometre. In the Great Lakes (USA), of 470,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre, most of them (81%) were microbeads. They have very high adverse impact on the aquatic environment, so much so that Illinois has become the first American state to ban cosmetics containing microplastics.
 
Plastics have always been an issue of concern but UNEP’s Year Book 2014 devotes a whole chapter to Plastic Debris in the Ocean in their emerging issues update section.  
 

Embankments and rising seas +  

 In June 2014, Cyclone Nanauk in the western Arabian Sea resulted in huge tidal waves reaching upto 4.5 meters hit Mumbai's shore. There were photos of people getting a thrill from running away from the seawall as waves broke over the Gateway of India. Waterlogging was severe in many places, mainly because the incoming water did not have a way to flow out. Similar impact was reported from Kochi and Trivandrum on other occasions. With more and more of the coast being built up, creeks are narrowed and ‘trained’ so that their mouths do not migrate while the mangroves that mitigate the impact of floods are destroyed and in their place other structures are erected.

Behind the Scenes +  

A new government has taken charge. It was interesting to read that climate change has been added to the portfolio of the Minister in charge of the Department of Environment and Forests. Quite essential as climate change is not only very much in the news today but also very important from the Indian perspective in terms of food security. Probably among the most important here is the impact of climate change on the water sector. It is forecast that there is likely to be short periods of intense rainfall. This means that we need to have better water harvesting and storage facilities to ensure that the rain that falls does not go down the drain but is allowed to steadily percolate into the ground. Focus on catchment areas thus becomes essential. Afforestation in these areas will help not only to prevent soil being washed away but also control landslides. When we talk of food security, we naturally think in terms of better irrigation and automatically, of large dams. Those of us who have grown up in cities and towns are not directly aware of the complexities of building a dam except that villages may go under water so that the region benefits. We wonder why there are protests about acquiring land for large industrial complexes, SEZs and so on. Few of us are prepared to read through thick reports full of statistics. After all there are policies on resettlement and providing employment to those who have been displaced. It is only when one reads a work, supposedly of fiction that one can get a feel of what happens to those displaced by a dam or due to land acquisition for a port or a power plant. There is Kamala Markandaya’s “The Coffer Dams”, for example, that I read as a student many years ago. “A Dirge for the Dammed” by Vishwas Patil and translated from the original Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra is a relatively recent work that portrays the construction in recent times of a larger irrigation project.

Heatwaves +  

The days are getting warmer. In fact, reports in the media indicate that record temperatures have already been equalled in many cities across India in April. Kolkata, Gujarat, parts of north India, Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh – all are reportedly already reeling under heatwave settings - temperatures above 40°C and generally, dry and dusty conditions.

Marine Debris +  

 Marine debris or marine litter as it is also known has been recognized as an important issue for years. But with oceans so vast, the importance of marine debris, while finding an occasional mention in news has probably not hit headlines till recently. It is over three weeks now that the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 370 disappeared on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. On board the flight was Ms Chandrika Sharma, the Executive Secretary of ICSF. Along with Bhoomika Trust and SIFFS, ICSF supported the establishment of TRINet in 2005.  Some two weeks after the plane disappeared, the Malaysian Premier declared that it was presumed lost somewhere over the Indian Ocean. However, to date, despite intensive search, no trace has been found of the lost flight. We still hope that the flight may have landed somewhere and the travellers safe.