Early warning is first defense in India climate disasters

The India Meteorological Department and the state of Kerala have increased infrastructure for cyclone warnings after Cyclone Ockhi killed 245 fishermen in 2017

By AP

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Fisherman work on a boat on March 3, 2023, in Kochi, Kerala state, India. — AP
Fisherman work on a boat on March 3, 2023, in Kochi, Kerala state, India. — AP

Published: Fri 21 Apr 2023, 11:45 PM

Last updated: Fri 21 Apr 2023, 11:46 PM

For deep sea fishermen Charlene Lenis, Jerome Beji and their 10-person crew, knowing when a cyclone is approaching can spell the difference between life and death.

When 2021's Cyclone Tauktae was nearing fishing areas off the southern coast of India, India’s weather agency sent out a message about the major storm. The fishers had been at sea two days and immediately returned to port after getting the satellite phone warning.

“We are gillnet fishers and we always travel as a troupe of boats. At least one boat will have a satellite phone,” said Lenis, who primarily catches tuna, sharks and other big fish.

The India Meteorological Department, as well as the state of Kerala, have increased infrastructure for cyclone warnings since Cyclone Ockhi in 2017, which killed 245 fishermen out at sea. Just a year later, unprecedented flooding cost the southwestern state of Kerala billions of dollars in damage, including in its largest city Kochi.

Ramping up ways to warn people about extreme weather disasters is becoming increasingly important for India — set to become the world’s most populous nation and one of the most vulnerable to climate change.

In a recent visit to India, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the World Meteorological Organisation will invest $3.1 billion to set up early warning systems across the world. According to the WMO, nearly half the world's countries — most of them low-income countries and small island states — do not have any early warning systems.

“Countries with limited early warning coverage have disaster mortality eight times higher than countries with high coverage,” said Guterres.

Elongated like a bitter gourd and stretching across southwestern India, the state of Kerala is nestled between the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats mountains and the Arabian sea. The state is also among the most vulnerable regions to climate change, increasingly facing extreme weather events, be it cyclones, floods or heat, with each passing year.

From a meteorological perspective the state occupies a special position, too. Arrival of the annual monsoons, critical to the Indian economy and agriculture, is declared on the subcontinent only after the rains make landfall in Kerala, usually in June.

“Kerala is witnessing an increase in extreme weather events and should become fully prepared to deal with it,” said Madhavan Rajeevan, a former secretary with the Indian ministry of earth sciences.

Rajeevan was among senior officials in-charge when weather calamities such as Cyclone Ockhi and the 2018 floods struck Kerala. “While things are better, there is still a lot of scope for improvement," he said. "It is important to ramp up communications systems, so the information reaches the people who need it the most. Such as fishers.”

The Cyclone Warning Division of the IMD, at its New Delhi headquarters, is the beating heart of India’s cyclone forecasting. The division receives data from satellites, local offices, doppler radars and allied agencies such as the National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting and the National Centre for Ocean Information Services.

When a storm is approaching, the division resembles a command centre for emergency operations with scientists working around the clock to monitor and relay information to regions likely to be affected.

Based on this information, thousands of people are moved to safer ground and fishers are called back from sea or prevented from going out. Since it was established over two decades ago, the division has been instrumental in saving countless Indian lives from extreme weather.

“When there is a cyclone, a bulletin is issued eight times a day, which includes warnings to fishermen, ports, and coastal weather bulletins,” said IMD chief Mrutyunjay Mohapatra.

Mohapatra earned the moniker “cyclone man of India” after accurately predicting the path of powerful Cyclone Phailin that hit the coast of Odisha in eastern India in 2013. “We have also increased the frequency of the warnings and make sure the information reaches fishers and others who need it as soon as possible,” he added.

Despite the weather agency’s efforts, the deadly toll of extreme weather is increasing in India. According to a 2022 report by the IMD, more than 2,000 people died in the country due to extreme weather events. Another report found that 2022 was among the warmest years on record for Kerala. The state lost 56 lives to extreme weather last year, according to Kerala government’s Institute for Climate Change Studies.

In an effort to reduce damage from extreme weather, the federal forecasting agency established a separate cyclone warning centre in Kerala in 2018. This serves not only Kerala but also nearby Karnataka state and the island of Lakshadweep in the Indian Ocean. India now has seven weather warning centres.

The Kerala government, which faced flak for its handling of Cyclone Okchi as well as devastating floods in 2018, also subscribes to private weather companies such as Skymet Weather that provide additional forecasting. It is one of India's first states to subscribe to private weather services.

One UN report estimated that the 2018 floods caused damages to the tune of $4.4 billion in the state, and officials said Kerala needs that much for recovery.

N. K. Premachandran, who represents a constituency from Kerala in India’s parliament, said that despite state and federal government claims, information about extreme weather is still not reaching people early enough.

“There is a bit of improvement after the 2017 cyclone and the 2018 floods, but it is not up to the mark," Premachandran said. "There is a shortage of trained personnel, and communication to the people about extreme weather is still lacking.”

Premachandran, who belongs to an opposition party in the state, said the government failed to warn about rain-triggered landslides in 2020 and 2021 in mountainous regions of the state.

Regardless of such shortcomings, fishers who venture out to sea off Kerala’s coasts welcome the state's extreme weather warnings.

“Increasing fuel costs, depleting fish numbers and increasing number of boats is making fishing harder,” said Lenis, the fisher whose crew returned to port in 2021 upon getting the storm warning.

Despite the risks, Lenis, who is a captain and has been fishing for 35 years, says he plans to continue and these warnings are keeping him and others just a little bit safer.

“Having these systems is at least making sure we are not risking our lives as much as we used to when we go out to sea," he said. "Our families have a little more confidence that whenever we go out to sea, we will most likely return home safely.”


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