As Cyclone Amphan wreaked havoc across eastern India,Amitav Ghosh, renowned author, anthropologist and an authority on climate change, spoke to Srijana Mitra Das at Times Evoke, on the impact and implications of Amphan— and what Cyclone Amphan and Covid-19 have in common:
Are climate change and extreme weather events like Cyclone Amphan linked?
Yes, scientists say there is a clear link. Hurricanes, cyclones and other tropical storms draw their energy from warm water, and many stretches of ocean are now exceptionally warm. One reason for the rapid intensification of Cyclone Amphan was the warmth of the Bay of Bengal. Also warmer air holds more moisture, so storms carry more rain.
How will Cyclone Amphan impact the mangroves and life of the Sundarbans?
Mangroves are resilient; they are well adapted to cyclones — indeed they play a very important role in protecting the interior. The impact on the wildlife of the Sundarbans is a different matter. If the storm surge is 30 feet in height, then all the land and most of the trees will be submerged. Tigers may be able to save themselves by climbing up the tallest trees — but that will not be an option for the deer.
However, it’s the people who live in the Sundarbans who will suffer the most. Their villages will be inundated, their dwellings swept away. There will be extensive damage to the embankments that protect the interiors of the islands. Arable land will be swamped with salt water and won’t be cultivable for years. Freshwater ponds will also be flooded with sea water. Many fishermen will lose their boats and nets. This time, with the cyclone arriving during a pandemic, evacuations themselves may have adverse consequences — it’s almost impossible to carry out largescale evacuations while observing social distancing.
Nor will it be possible to maintain social distancing in crowded cyclone shelters. On top of that, an untold number of people — many already suffering from the effects of the lockdown — will lose their livelihoods. A good number of the migrant workers walking back to Bengal are from the Sundarbans. They will arrive to find further devastation. It will be a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions.
Why is India’s eastern coast so vulnerable to such cyclonic activity?
The Bay of Bengal has long been known as a ‘storm breeder’ — indeed, Henry Piddington, who coined the word ‘cyclone’, lived in what was then Calcutta. He was one of the first scientists to investigate the phenomenon of the storm surge.
We can only hope that Cyclone Amphan’s impacts are not like those of the cyclone that struck Kolkata in October 1737. In my novel ‘The Hungry Tide’, Nirmal, a schoolmaster, describes this cyclone: “In Kolkata tens of thousands of dwellings fell instantly to the ground… They say that there was not a building in the city that was left with four walls intact. Bridges were blown away, wharves were carried off by the surging waters, godowns were emptied of their rice and even the gunpowder in the armouries was scattered by the wind. On the river there were many ships at anchor, large and small… Among them there were two English ships, of five hundred tons each. The wind picked them up and carried them over the tops of trees and houses, it threw them down a quarter of a mile from the river. People saw huge barges fluttering in the air like paper kites…”
The disparity in cyclonic activity between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea is partly the result of a historical anomaly. Starting in the late 19th century, there was a decline in cyclonic activity in the Arabian Sea — but before that, India’s west coast had been hit by many cyclones. Mumbai was hit by very destructive storms in 1618 (when a fifth of the population was killed), 1740, 1783, 1837 and 1854.
Then, there was a lull, ending in 1998 — between then and 2001, three cyclones have hit to the north of Mumbai, claiming over 17,000 lives. There’s been a big uptick in cyclonic activity in the Arabian Sea — this is one of the predicted effects of climate change. It is increasingly likely that Mumbai will be hit by a major storm in the years to come. I have written about this in ‘The Great Derangement’.
You mentioned the pandemic. Do you see a link between the Covid-19 situation and Cyclone Amphan?
There is no direct causal link — but these phenomena are cognate in the sense that they are all products of the tremendous acceleration that occurred over the last 30 years, a period in which extreme forms of neo-liberal capitalism have been imposed upon the world by global elites. This period has been called the ‘Great Acceleration’, which is appropriate because it is the acceleration of consumption and production, and the resulting rise in greenhouse gas emissions, that lies behind all these crises, from the climate breakdown to the pandemic.
Source : TOI