Cyclone Nargis and talk of climate change

Published: 5 November 2008 0:00 CET
Cyclone Nargis made landfall late into the night of 2 May 2008, leaving 84,500 people dead in its wake and up to 53,800 people missing. (p18543)
Cyclone Nargis made landfall late into the night of 2 May 2008, leaving 84,500 people dead in its wake and up to 53,800 people missing. (p18543)

Anthony Mwangi, IFRC, Geneva

For years now, cyclones have pummelled the western seafront of Myanmar. Disaster preparedness and response measures focused on that part of Myanmar, guided by a historic sequence of events.

That changed when a cyclone shifted substantially from its usual path and washed away 115 townships living eastward along the coastal delta region of Myanmar. The cyclone went inland to devastate and rearrange 35 kilometres of Myanmar’s topography.

Cyclone Nargis made landfall late into the night of 2 May 2008, leaving 84,500 people dead in its wake and up to 53,800 people missing. According to United Nations estimates, 2.4 million people were affected. With a storm surge of between 3.5 and 7 metres high careening towards Myanmar at wind speeds of up to 194 kph, the cyclone has been rated as one of the deadliest in the North Indian Ocean Basin.

There is an amplified intensity of tropical cyclones in Asia that continue to wreck havoc among mostly vulnerable communities. A case in point is tropical cyclone Sidr, which devastated Bangladesh in 2007. Major hydro-meteorological emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina and other tropical cyclones and floods have raised concern.

Climate change?

Questions abound today whether Nargis was just another disaster or a result of climate change. A scientific investigation would undoubtedly unearth whether this fits the pattern of rising risks due to climate change.

According to the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Guide, published by the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre in The Netherlands, no single disaster or strange weather event can be immediately said to be caused by climate change.

“Most extreme events could occur even without climate change, although they would not be so likely to happen,” the guide notes, and adds: “What we can say is that a particular event fits the pattern of rising risks due to climate change.

Complex disasters

“Climate change itself will create complex disasters: rising sea levels combined with more intense storms will lead to much more destructive storms surges, and droughts that are rapidly succeeded by floods and insect plagues will be more devastating.”

A statement from the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in India observes that Nargis was “not just a natural disaster, but a human-made disaster caused by climate change.” CSE is an independent public interest organization that focuses on creating awareness about environmental challenges. Scientists have alluded to the fact that most issues related to changing weather patterns are inadvertently caused by human action.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Asia has established that climate change will intensify tropical cyclones. The IPCC notes: “Based on a range of models, it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with ongoing increases of tropical sea surface temperatures.”

Early warning

The Myanmar emergency solidifies the message that has constantly been echoed by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and other humanitarian agencies - that the need for disaster preparedness mechanisms and early warning systems cannot be overemphasized. The global changes in weather patterns need to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“We have seen increased changes in sea water temperatures and this means that we should be looking carefully for any unusual occurrences,” says Peter Rees, head of the operations support department at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Geneva.

“Early warning and early action is the key to dealing with these changing global weather occurrences,” Rees advises. “These could be by preparing staff and volunteers through refresher trainings and equipping them appropriately, pre-positioning relief items, and evacuating communities living along the disaster path.”

He further emphasises the need to invest in more water and sanitation equipment, as hydro-meteorological disasters such as Cyclone Nargis increase the risk of waterborne diseases.

Steep rise

There has been a remarkable growth in the development of forecasts that can help in cyclone predictions and reduce the impact of disasters. Wide scale destruction from disasters has been mitigated through technological advances.

Globally, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has been enhancing its disaster risk reduction responses as a result of increased cyclone activities. Partnerships with governments, NGOs, meteorological offices, universities and other centres of knowledge, have been mooted. The IFRC has built a partnership with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) to foster closer cooperation on global disaster monitoring.

IFRC statistics show that hydro-meteorological disasters globally are on a steep rise. Whether Cyclone Nargis was related to climate change or not, more of these acts of nature may increase in the future and require immediate attention.

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