31 July 2008

Cyclone Nargis: 3 months later

While the storm itself came and went nearly three months ago, the Ayeyarwady Delta region of Myanmar continues to feel the effects of Cyclone Nargis. The storm left nearly 140 000 dead or missing, and severely affected another 2.4m more. Women and children bore the brunt of the death toll, with roughly 60% of fatalities reported as women.

Economic losses are expected to run to the $4b mark, comparable to the costs of the Boxing Day tsunami in Indonesia. An estimated 450,000 houses were destroyed and another 350,000 damaged; more than 4,000 schools decimated, and about 75 percent of local health facilities wrecked. The storm also destroyed livelihoods in the primarily agricultural and seaside area, killing livestock and sweeping away tools, seeds and fishing equipment.

The local fishing industry remains crippled, with only a fraction of small-scale fisherman having returned to work. Further, the cyclone devastated fish-processing facilities in the area, exacerbating unemployment and the conditions of Myanmar’s poor.

The damages are not only physical, but psychological as well. The survivors continue to suffer from pervasive trauma, further challenging the process of rebuilding shattered lives. Teachers are seeing first-hand the problems children face in returning to their studies. Almost half her students show signs of difficulty concentrating on their lessons. Some feel 'completely bleak'. This woman, a survivor of the storm, has quite a story:

"That night I went into labour in a small bamboo, thatched house on the banks of the Pyapon River to deliver my first child. But as the wind roared, my husband and I struggled outside only to see our home destroyed right before our very eyes.

“As the rain poured down and the water began to reach my chest, my husband lifted me on to some floating debris. As I lay there, the labour pains became so painful I began to scream. I needed help.

"Finally, among the broken pieces of wood I gave birth around six in the morning, but almost died in the process. I had lost so much blood. Both my husband and the woman who had helped me deliver thought I was gone. But a single hope kept me hanging on – that my son needed me.

"After the cyclone, I thought the worst was over. But finally I understood that the worst of our hardship – bringing our lives back to where they were – had only just begun.

Her son's name is Nargis...The rest of her story (follow the last link) is quite illustrative of the problems faced by many, a result of not only the TC itself, but exacerbated by poverty and an apathetic government response. (and general repression).

Cyclone Nargis also appears to have had a broader climate impact. Conditions continue to look favorable for the positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole this (austral) spring. Cool sea surface temperatures off Sumatra have been observed since mid-May, and remain through the most recent observations (21-27Jul; SST anomalies). The is also an absence of deep convection om the area.

The positive phase of IOD has a widespread climate impact, affecting the Southern Hemisphere storm tracks and altering rainfall patterns. In Australia, it often results in large regions of the country having a below-median rainfall totals. A continuation of drought conditions for some, perhaps.

Nargis's role in this is that, as noted in this recent paper, severe TCs in the Bay of Bengal during the April-May period often serve as the trigger for IOD events, in fact may be necessary. The first step in a complex sequence of events, a chain reaction involving the non-linear interactions of ocean, atmosphere and geography.

Building on the conclusions of this paper, should an IOD develop in 2008, it would be unprecedented in the ~100 yr observational record. A hat trick, three in a row. The event of 2007 was unusual in that it occurred during La Nina, the first time that has occurred, and also was the second observed case of two-in-a-row.

Confronted with such observations of course raises some questions...Is this a sign result of man's influence on the global climate or something extremely rare but purely natural? Climate change or natural variability? A sign of climate instability to come?

The are several lessons to be learned here. One is that seemingly singular weather events like Nargis often have very long term effects. Not just on the people directly involved, but also those subsequently affected by any further natural disasters (e.g. wildfire, drought, flood...) that may arise as a result of this initial event.

The second lesson was learned before. Our corporate masters have selected a purely reactive response (i.e. adaptation only) to climate change, nominally because it is cheaper and easier to 'implement'.(It really involves doing nothing now and just hoping for the best) In the long run, this is neither the cheaper nor the easier path, though. The impacts can be complex and extend well-beyond the immediate event, inflating both economic and environmental costs.

An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. Mitigation – stopping our destructive lifestyles -- is absolutely necessary. Attempting to halt (to the degree possible) the apparently increasing climate instability, without resorting to some half-baked geo-engineering scheme, is much more prudent. While the initial costs are higher, the potential payoff in the future is much greater. And future generations are what this is about.

So as we meet the future and the consequences of Our Way of Life, let us hope that we face the challenges with the tenacity shown by the Burmese victims of Cyclone Nargis.

Images: 1. An aerial view of Myanmar. Taken from one of the linked stories. The metadata on the pic suggests it was taken in early July. Credited to Contributor/IRIN.
2. Extracted from Global SST Anomaly for week ending 27 Jul 2008 at the BoM. Sorry for cutting off the scale. Blue is negative (cool) anomalies, red positive.

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