Cyclone Aila: A grim reminder of effects of global warming?

Have the portends of the doomsday really begun? Cyclone Aila, that lashed the eastern coast of India with devastating power and rendered more than one lakh people in the Sagar Island and the adjoining Sundarbans delta in West Bengal homeless on Monday, has perhaps, given a grim reminder to the lackadaisical administration of an impending environmental disaster waiting to happen in the region.

Experts and NGOs familiar with growing consequences of the global warming and subsequent climate change have cautioned that the half of the 97-odd islands dotting the Sunderbans delta might meet a watery grave within less than a decade, rendering thousands of people environmental refugees, if the authorities do not embark on the task of protecting these islands on a war footing literally.

For several decades, the mud-fortified embankments around various islands that stretch over 3,500 km approximately, currently run a grave risk of being swept away in tidal surges of water, the likes of which were triggered by Aila.

“Several embankments gave in like nine pins after a tidal surge as high as eight metres hit them on Monday, flooding most of the villages within half an hour,” said Tushal Kanjilal, head of an NGO working in the Sunderbans for a decade now. “It was sheer providence, as also timely warning from the weather office, that the death toll wasn’t huge.”

The average height of an embankment being five metres, surging salt water of the Bay of Bengal breached the main dykes at several places such as Sagar, Patharpratima, Sandeshkhali, Hingalganj, Kultoli, Mousuni and many an adjoining islands inundating fields laden with ready-to-harvest crops and killing aqua creatures. The loss has been estimated at more than Rs 50 crore by the agriculture department.

But the overriding concern of the experts and NGOs stems from the fact that the water level in the myriad rivers and creeks that make up the Sundarbans — the world’s largest mangrove forest — is still high. In fact, the cyclone coincided with the new moon, which is the time for especially strong high tides anyway. The water is likely to go down to its usual level in  another two-three days.

Already, a stretch of the Sunderbans has been declared ‘sinking Island zone,’ with two islands having been gobbled up by the ravaging sea. Like tsunami that has permanently altered the topography of the Andamans and Nicobar Islands with Trinket having been bifurcated into two and many islands going half under the sea, Aila has already weakened the foundations of these age-old dykes.

“The long-term impact of the cyclone will be huge,” according to a spokesman of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that has done a lot of work to safeguard the villagers from the devouring sea. “But all the work we had done on Mousuni island has been washed away,” he lamented.

The Greenpeace said the destruction caused by Aila was in consonance with the predictions made by scientists who have warned that storms would become more frequent and more damaging due to climate change.

NGOs who work in the Sundarbans and local officials of the UN Development Programme and UN Children’s Fund held an emergency meeting on Tuesday and decided to move into the affected areas from Wednesday, carrying emergency supplies of drinking water, dry food, milk and other relief materials.

“India must continue to pressure the industrialised world to make deep and urgent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions (which is causing climate change). At the same time, domestically, India must take serious action to curtail emissions of carbon dioxide by adopting mandatory, energy efficiency and renewable energy targets, and creating fiscal incentives for the same,” a Greenpeace spokesperson said.

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