By Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, May 9, 2019: Natural resource rich Odisha has emerged as India’s disaster capital. Year after year, the state has been ravaged by natural calamities and the Fani cyclone rampage therefore comes as no surprise.

Flood, drought and cyclones visit the state with unfailing regularity. A deadly cocktail of these calamities has made Odisha the disaster capital of India. The Odisha coastal zone has turned most vulnerable due to reoccurrence of storms and severe storms at small intervals. Vulnerability of the Odisha coastal zone is relatively high in comparison to other States like Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and even Tamil Nadu.

According to a report by Odisha State Disaster Mitigation Authority [OSDMA] on vulnerability of the coastal zone, reoccurrence of storm and severe storm is 15 months in case of Odisha. However, revisit of storm and severe storms in case of Andhra Pradesh is 20 months and 28 months in case of West Bengal.

Around 26 per cent of the total cyclonic disturbances of the Indian subcontinent affect Odisha coast. While 13 per cent of total cyclonic disturbances affect Andhra Pradesh, it is 14 per cent in case of West Bengal.

In the last century, Indian subcontinent experienced more than 1,035 cyclonic disturbances of which 905 were found in the eastern coast, including 263 cyclonic disturbances in Odisha.

The severe cyclonic storms of 1909, 1910, 1912, 1914, 1967, 1971, Super Cyclone 1999, very severe cyclonic storm Phailin in 2013, Titli in 2018 caused colossal damages and devastations. Now severe cyclone Fani has virtually crippled the economy of growing Odisha.

It is crystal clear that disasters strike Odisha in quick successions, causing death and destruction, injuring thousands and making millions homeless. Whether nightmarish memory of Super Cyclone in 1999 or Phailin and Titli, the successive calamities have sent chill down the spine.

Between 1834 and 1926, the state experienced a flood once in four years. This rose to once in two years after 1926. The state experienced nine floods within 15 days in 2001. This was an all-time high, damaging 2.12 million hectares of standing crops. The 2001 floods submerged 25 out of the 30 districts of Odisha, many of which had never witnessed floods before. It even inundated hilly areas like Kalahandi and Phulbani.

Heavy rains in the upper catchment area as well as unusual rainfall in different districts cause flood in all major river systems of the state. The problem is further accentuated when floods synchronize with high tides. During high tide, it becomes difficult for the floodwater to enter into the sea affecting the coastal areas heavily. The entire coastal belt of Odisha is prone to storm surges, which are usually accompanied by heavy rainfall, thus making the estuary region vulnerable to both storm surges and river flooding.

Ironically, while cyclones and floods are wreaking havoc, continuous revisit of droughts are causing huge crop loss and making farmers penury. While normal rainfall in the State on the basis of 50 years average of annual rainfall from 1901 to 1950 was 1,503 millimeter (MM) with 73 rainy days, it has gone down drastically over the last 50 years. Decline in rainfall has resulted in drought and it is some time affecting the entire State and sometimes, few regions.

This is not the end. Now several districts of Odisha have come under earthquake zones. As per recent categorization, Odisha falls between Zone II (low damage risk) and Zone II (moderate damage risk) of the Seismic Zone.

Cyclone, flood, drought and earthquake are multiple natural disasters making Odisha highly vulnerable and the State is facing economic downturn due to such reoccurrence of the disasters.

Why is this happening? Is there an emerging pattern in this cycle of destruction? There is evidence that suggests that the state’s ecology and weather conditions have undergone a change. Experts believe Odisha might well be showing up the impact of climate change induced by global warming. Although, the geographical location of the state is one of the causes behind these extreme weather influences, there is also a growing belief now that these natural calamities are not as natural as they apparently appear and that the state’s environmental degradation has gone a long way in triggering these disasters.

Today, 52 per cent of the state’s land faces erosion due to deforestation. With mangrove forests being cleared, more and more areas have come under the grip of cyclones. Rivers deluge more areas due to siltation. When the government releases water in dams like Hirakud during the flood, this adds to the problem. Almost 490,000 ha of fertile lands have been waterlogged, salinated and sandcasted in the coastal Odisha due to cyclones and floods.

“The poor are always at the receiving end when floods hit people. Farmers and fishermen, who are the traditional food producers, are ecologically, geographically and economically marginalized. We need to revive all old tanks and natural drainage systems, construct watersheds and plant trees on the banks of the rivers to check the menace of frequent floods,” says scientist Padmashri Dr P K Jena.

The climate change projections for the period 2041-2060 in India’s National Communication indicate that the frequency of heavy rainfall events is likely to increase in the upper catchment areas of Odisha by 5-10 days, leading to floods in the lower ends of the rivers where they meet the sea; and the intensity of these events is likely to increase by 1-4 millimetre per day during this period. Besides, the IPCC’s Working Group I projects a rise of 0.18 metre to 0.59 metre in the sea level by 2100.

By all estimates, Odisha is among the states most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

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