Disastrous state

Floods, cyclones, heat waves and droughts have made Orissa the disaster capital of India. Is it just natural or is the state paying a price for climate change and environmental degradation?

Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015 | 11:05:10 AM

Disastrous state

-- (Credit: Photographs: Santosh Mahapatra) For more than a decade now, Orissa has been reeling under contrasting extreme weather conditions: from heat waves to cyclones; from droughts to floods. Calamities have been visiting the state with alarming regularity. Out of the last 100 years, the state has been dis-aster- affected for 90 years: floods have occurred for 49 years, droughts for 30 and cyclones have hit the state for 11 years. Since 1965, calamities are not only becoming more frequent but strik-ing areas that never had a vulnerability record. For instance, a heat wave in 1998 killed around 1,500 people. Most of the casualties were in coastal Orissa, a region otherwise known for its mode-rate temperature.

The 1999 super cyclone spread to places like Bhubaneswar and Nayagarh that were never known to be cyclone-prone. While the 2001 drought parched the fields in coastal districts, the un-precedented flood of 2001 submerged 25 of the state's 30 districts. Many of these areas had never witnessed a flood before.

Why is this happening? Is there an emerging pattern in this cycle of des-truction? There is evidence that suggests that the state's ecology and weather conditions have undergone a change. Experts believe Orissa 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 defore-station. 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 Orissa due to cyclones and floods.

In the last four years, calamities have claimed more than 30,000 lives. Agricul-tural lands have become fallow and this has led to hunger and starvation deaths.

Caught in the cycle of disasters and impoverishment, the poor in Orissa have become even more vulnerable. Years of official neglect and mismanage-ment of natural resources have left them few options. The already stressed eco-system is made even more fragile with each disaster. And the poor living on the margins of subsistence are forced into greater penury. Worse, they are fast los-ing their capacity to rebuild their lives after each disaster. Consecutive calami-ties have ripped Orissa's economy apart. The devastating flood this year has already induced crop failure worth a whopping Rs 1,500 crore.

Against this deplorable backdrop and the permeating impact of the calamities, the state administration remains unruffled. Orissa's chief minis-ter Naveen Patnaik maintains, "Orissa is endemic to calamities and depressions in Bay of Bengal can't be whisked away." Recently, when poverty-stricken people of Kashipur died after consuming the poisonous gruel made of mango kernels, Patnaik parroted lines like, "I under-stand that mango kernel consumption is common in that area", and "these are not hunger deaths, these are accidents and you cannot prevent accidents". For the people of Orissa it is a circus of death with a misguided ringmaster.

Media hype

OVER the past six months, a series of reports have appeared in the media on the 'devastation and misery' caused in Padre village in northern Kerala by 'spraying of endosulfan'. All the reports carried photographs of the same set of unfortunate children born with physical deformities or 'congenital anomalies'.

Congenital anomalies are "birth defects which may be inherited or produced by external factors however, for most anomalies it is not possible to identify the causative mechanism." Not so in Padre village. All the media reports unequivocally blame endosulfan as the causative agent. First sentence it. Evidence and proof of guilt can be found out later...appears to be the pulse.

Research conducted by the plantation corporation scientists in early 1970s had concluded that endosulfan was the best insecticide for saving the cashew crop from the dreaded pest cashew tea moquito bug (TMB). It was also found that aerial spraying was best and the most economical for large plantations.

Even suicides committed in this village are attributed to the spraying of endosulfan. In 1997, Y S Mohana Kumar, a doctor practicing in the village noticed this unusual occurrence of high proportion of congenital deformities. He wrote that the problem could be water itself which might contain a mineral or radioactive substance which is harmful to the brain. Except for the report by CSE, which appeared in Down To Earth, there is no other report indicating such high values of endosulfan residues from anywhere.

The procedure adopted by CSE scientists, certainly looks biased. In any study of this nature, the most logical option would be to collect random samples from people including both healthy and affected. As per the CSE reports, the samples collected from the village such as cow's milk, coconut oil, vegetables contain residues in a very large proportion. If so, the entire village must have been exposed to these products. Then, why are only a few people from 123 houses affected while others remain free from these ailments.

Many of the people affected by these maladies are reportedly related to each other. The possibility of inbreeding by marriage between close relatives over a period of time also could have contributed to the congenital defects. The possibility of use of prohibited medicines during the initial stages of pregnancy can also result in birth defects.

Reports indicate that abnormalities were noticed first in 1981. In 1997, reports of a possible radiation effect were aired but in both the instances very little publicity was given. Surprisingly, in 2001 there is a blitz in the media. The deformities in Padre village is a fact which every one should accept but these media reports are fantasies of individuals which in no way would help poor handicapped children of Padre except to parade them naked in print and visual media before the world. May someone help us to understand the phenomena and the motive behind the wide publicity that has gained?

Parched lands

Broken earth, broken lives: a farmer in Balangir sits on his fallow fieldTHIS year Orissa suffered one of its worst droughts as well. The drought gripped more than twothirds of the state’s districts. After the great famine of 1866, it was for the first time that drought of such a magnitude hit Orissa. It affected the lives of 11 million people.

After flood, drought is the second most frequent calamity that the state faces. The state government has officially declared 25 districts as drought prone. Drought has a chronic reccurence since 1965 in west Orissa. “Since 1965 there is not a single year when this region has not seen drought,” says Jagdish Pradhan of Sahabhagi Vikas Kendra, an NGO working on long-term drought mitigation. But it is not only the recurrence but the expanse of the drought that haunts Orissa. The 2001 drought engulfed districts like Sundergarh and the Kendrapada which were earlier drought-free.

The state government’s white paper on the 2001 drought, the third consecutive white paper on drought, admitted its uncontrolled spread. By February, 2001, Orissa’s western districts were reeling under a severe water crisis and people started migrating. The worst affected districts like Kalahandi and Balangir reported 60 per cent less rainfall than normal. The situation in the nine western districts was severe as it was the second consecutive drought. The state government put the economic loss due to crop damage at Rs 642.89 crore. By May, 2001, the state had already reported 61 starvation deaths. But the government has admitted only 19 deaths which too it said were induced by poverty. As the drought gripped the coastal districts, where the agricultural labourers of west Orissa migrate traditionally, people had to jostle to get some work under drought relief operation. The jobs provided under the operation could cater hardly to 10 per cent of the affected people.

The Orissa government claimed that this was its largest relief operation in recent history but unofficial estimates indicated that more than half a million people had to migrate to neighbouring states in search of work. Surveys in Balangir and Kalahandi show that with every drought, people lose a substantial part of their land to moneylenders. Orissa has become more vulnerable to drought though there has been only a negligible deficiency in rainfall. The drought history of the state, during the 1950s, indicates that only three districts were affected. But by 1980s, the entire western Orissa was drought-affected and by 1990s, southern Orissa also had come under the grip of drought.

One of the prime reasons for increased frequency of drought is the neglect of Orissa’s traditional water harvesting structures. For instance, the droughtprone Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput (KBK) districts of western Orissa. Four decades ago, these districts combated droughts successfully with a network of about 20,000 traditional tanks built with community participation. Given the undulating topography of this region, these tanks stored water which was used during the dry months. So a failure in rainfall never caused drought. What has also aggravated the drought situation in these districts is the disappearance of drought-resistant indigenous crop varieties.

A study by Paschim Orissa Krishijivi Sangh (POKS), a farmers’ organisation based in Kalahandi, says that the indigenous varieties of crops are on the verge of extinction in western Orissa as high yielding varieties (HYV) are encouraged for commercial use. In the early 1960s, the reputed agricultural scientist, R C Richaria, had identified as many as 300 varieties of paddy seeds, which the farmers of western Orissa were cultivating. In 1996, the varieties reduced to just 71. In the last 100 years, 30 severe droughts have been recorded in Orissa. But the government has not learnt anything. Skewed policies have led to the death of traditional water harvesting structures. Drought proofing rather than drought relief is the need of the hour. But is the government listening?

Swept apart

Super cyclone 1999: People of Jagatsinghpur move to a safer place

THE ghost of the 1999 super cyclone still haunts the people of Orissa. On October 18, 1999, a cyclone with a wind velocity of 200 km/hr hit the coastal district of Ganjam. It ripped through the district killing 300 people and destroying all standing crops. And while the state government was still busy estimating the economic loss, on October 29, 1999, a super cyclone wrought havoc on 14 coastal districts.

This super cyclone first hit the area between Ersama and Balikuda located in coastal Orissa. It paused for three hours in a triangle formed by Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapada and Paradeep. The cyclone then moved towards Cuttack and stopped there for two hours. Finally, it zig zagged into the sea. Usually, cyclones in Orissa last for a few hours. But the super cyclone stayed put for three days bringing the state to a standstill. On its way, it marooned one-third of the state’s area with seawater that ingressed up to 30 km in the land. Tidal waves of around four metres washed away people and property.
Around 15 million people were affected and more than 20,000 people died in the cyclone. Around 7.5 million people became homeless. Orissa lost two million tonnes of rice crop. The cyclone also devastated 17,000 sq km of agricultural land. Not just this, there was a marked impact of the cyclone on the environment. According to the state forest department, around 200,000 trees were uprooted in about 25,000 ha reserved forest. The coastal areas were the worst hit.

According to a survey of the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun, two coastal districts of Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapara faced maximum devastation as far as dense forest cover was concerned. In these two districts, the forest cover had now been reduced by 50 per cent. “There is a change in the micro climate of the region after this loss in vegetation,” says M C Das, the former chairperson of the Orissa pollution control board. Temperature data of the coastal region in the last three years shows wide fluctuations while average temperatures have gone up.

Before the rescue team could reach the cyclone-affected areas, epidemic broke out and it continued for a long time. As water could not recede for almost six months due to the region’s poor drainage system, the cycloneaffected areas reported 80,000 cases of diarrhoea within a month. Till the end of 1999, there were around 500,000 people suffering from diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases.

The super cyclone has put the state’s development clock back by two decades. Official estimates put the loss at Rs 10,000 crore. The state still implements relief and rehabilitation works in the cyclone-affected areas. According to economists, the cyclone will have an impact during the next two decades as people will spend more of their earnings on basics like home and agriculture. “This will stagnate growth and affect capital accumulation in the state. People will also lose the zest for life,” says Vaidyanath Mishra, a renowned economist and former vice chancellor of Utkal University. Little wonder then, even today psychiatric departments of hospitals in Bhubaneswar, Cuttack and Berhampur are flooded with cyclone victims. What rings alarm bells is the prediction that Orissa coast is going to become more violent. According to Artabandhu Mishra, the frequency of cyclones has increased in the Orissa coast. Quoting from a compilation of cyclones in the last four centuries, he says that from 1970s, cyclones have frequented the state and caused more damage than ever before.

Arabind Behera, managing director of the Orissa State Disaster Mitigation Authority (OSDMA), formed after the 1999 super cyclone, says, “What we lack is a scientific study of cyclones.” The UNDP team leader in Orissa, Saroj Jha says, “The lack of scientific temper in our governance is seriously affecting our calamity relief work. For example, after the 1999 cyclone, there has been no study of its environmental impact.”

Warming warnings

Climate changes coupled with f West Orissa: Drought has become an annual affair and is spreading. Massive deforestation. Soil erosion silting up major rivers thus rising riverbeds and causing more floods downstream. Tempereature rising. Balangir district has reported an average rise of 8 degree celcius in the last 30 years

North Orissa: Cyclone prone. With mangroves gone, cyclones have intensified. Recently gripped by drought. Flash floods due to rapid deforestation and rise in malaria.

South Orissa: Prone to cyclones, droughts and floods. Land degradation leading to acute poverty. Forests depleting fast leading to agricultural and livelihood crisis like that of Kashipur

East/Costal Orissa: Rising frequency of cyclones and floods.Depleting mangrove forests turning low intensity cyclones into more devastating ones. Wetlands have dried up. Heat waves reported

A SECTION of scientists and clima-tologists believe that Orissa's extreme weather conditions and their frequent occurrences are a dress rehearsal for the meteorological may-hem that climate change induced by global warming would cause on earth. Scientific and empirical evidences are being put together by the scientific com-munity to prove that the state might well be showing up the impact of cli-mate change. The people of Orissa who are getting used to the calamities also feel that climate has changed for the worse and its impact is being felt every-where (see box: Silent spring).

An analysis of the state's rainfall data and temperature variation reveals that summers are getting prolonged. "The state is definitely heating up," says Murari Lal, chief scientist of department of atmospheric sciences, Indian Insti-tute of Technology (IIT), Delhi. Lal has concluded that Orissa's weather condi-tions are warnings of global warming. "Abnormal weather conditions are already a reality but nobody admits it," he says.

Interestingly, for the first time the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) officials have acknowledged that there must be something seriously wrong with Orissa's climate. "Perhaps, the extreme weather condition is be-cause of climatic change or due to a general change in the behaviour of cli-mate," says S R Kalsi, deputy director general, IMD (cyclone warning). This is a virtual U-turn for the IMD, which during the heat wave of 1998 , brushed aside the international surmise that the heat wave was an indication of climate change. The unprecedented heat wave in 1998 had been linked to the El Nio effect. Immediately after the heat wave in 1998, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) suggested that the extreme wea-ther conditions could be linked to the El Nio phenomena which was active dur-ing that time.

It is quite a paradox that the Orissa government's department dealing with disasters outrightly downplays the sug-gestion that Orissa is bearing the brunt of globe's rising temperature when its official documents admit the change in the state's ecology and weather condi-tions. The extreme ecological changes were also mentioned in a white paper on the drought of 1992-93. The paper said: "For the last few years sudden changes in the ecology are contributing to multi- ple occurrences of these tragedies every year, creating more and more problems for our people in matter of relief and rehabilitation."

The white paper on the drought of 1998-99 observes: "It has been our expe-rience in a number of years that late onset and/or early withdrawal of mon-soon, erratic and inadequate rainfall and absence of soil moisture are the main reasons of drought."

Geographically vulnerable
Scientific studies and the state's fluctua-ting weather conditions substantiate that the state is reeling under a climatic chaos. But the pertinent question is: why has Orissa been affected the most? Explains Lal, "Orissa is placed at the head of the Bay of Bengal where weather is formed. So even a slight change in sea's behaviour can have an immediate impact on the coast." The Bay becomes the centre of low pressures causing heavy rains and cyclones in the sub-continent and specially in Orissa. These cyclones and depression involve circu-lation over thousands of kilometres and form links between Orissa's atmos-phere and the entire planetary circulation system.

Going by the key parameters of cli-mate like temperature and rainfall, the climate may worsen in Orissa. "The full impact of climate change does not show up immediately. It triggers changes slowly but certainly," says Lal. Scientist and national professor A P Mitra of National Physical Laboratory says, "It might be difficult to prove Orissa's direct link with global climate change but Orissa stands out as a phenomena that needs to be studied."

A close look at the district-wise rain-fall of Orissa since the beginning of the 20th century indicates that before the 1950s, rainfall was less erratic. Most years, prior to 1950s, received normal or above normal rainfall. Rainfall became much more erratic since the 1960s and most of the years recorded rainfall below normal. "This is true of all the districts," says the State of Orissa's environment report that has analysed the rainfall data. Before 1957, between 67 and 90 per cent of the years recorded normal or above normal rainfall for various districts while after 1957, only 32 to 68 per cent of the years recorded normal or above normal rainfall for various districts.

Similarly, the rainfall showed a ris-ing trend since the beginning of the cen-tury to the end of 1950s and then declined from 1960s onwards. The per-centage of years with normal or above normal rainfall has gone down from 90 in 1957 to 45 in 1996 in Koraput, 88 in 1957 to 45 in 1996 in Sundergarh. Similar rainfall deficiency is being experienced in Pulbani, Mayurbhanj and Dhenkanal (see table: Deficient downpour).

The mean daily maximum tempe-rature of the state is also gradually increasing as also the mean daily mini-mum temperature. Says the State of Orissa's environment report: "The Titila-garh and Koraput belt comprising entire south and western Orissa has witnessed an exceptional rise in daily maximum and minimum temperature. Even the coastal areas have recorded high temperature." K L Pujari, a soil scientist who has studied the heat wave conditions in coastal Orissa agrees, "Climate change is definitely a reality. Earlier the western Orissa was a known calamity hotspot.But now the coastal areas are also experiencing heat waves. Bhubaneswar now has a temperature above 40C which is equal to interior Sambalpur."

A report prepared by Lal, explaining the impact of climate change on India, underlines, "Records suggest that there has been a rising trend in all-India mean surface air temperature. The numbers of monsoon depressions and tropical cyclones forming over the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea reflect decline trends since 1970." Rain is caused by a depres-sion formed in the Bay of Bengal. So even a small change in a parameter like temperature will have a huge impact on Orissa.

Research shows that a change of 0.5C will change the character of the monsoon. One of the striking abnor-malities will be less depression in Bay of Bengal thus causing less rainfall in the state. This is based on scientific analysis of sea behaviour during 1890-1990, according to Lal.

Lal suggests that an increase in sea surface temperature will be accompa- nied by a corresponding increase in cyclone intensity. A possible increase in cyclone intensity of 10-20 per cent against a rise in sea surface temperature of 2-4C is very likely to happen. "Data strongly suggests that an increase in the intensity of cyclones is certain," he says. In a data analysis of cyclone hitting Orissa in the past century, Lal has found that intensity and frequency of cyclones have gone up in coastal Orissa.

Chain effect

THE debate on whether climate change causes calamities in Orissa rages on. But nobody denies that environmental degradation in the state has let loose a chain of problems.

Massive deforestation in west Orissa is not only destroying the livelihood of local people but also silting up riverbeds causing floods in the downstream coas-tal Orissa. On the other hand, barren hills lead to heavy run off of rainwater resulting in flash floods in the local area and more floods in the low coastal lands of Orissa.

The devastation of the fragile coastal ecology with its crucial protective layers of mangrove forest gone, increases vul-nerability. Satellite pictures of the 1999 cyclone show that mangrove forest helped reduce the impact of the intense super cyclone. Ersama in the Jagatsingh-pur district of coastal Orissa, without mangroves, reported 8,000 deaths dur-ing the cyclone as tidal waves ingressed 10 km into the land. But the coastal dis-trict of Kendrapara, which had some mangrove left, suffered less damage comparatively (see table: Vanishing green).

In 1993, Artabandhu Mishra was invited by the collector of Kalahandi to speak on environmental degradation. And when Mishra said, "Kalahandi will one day be flooded", people scoffed at his statement because Kalahandi is a chronic drought prone upland. But the floods in 2001 proved Mishra right. It was the first district in the state to suffer floods this year and heavy rainfall caused flash floods in a very short time. The hills stripped of their forest cover could not retain the heavy downpour.

Deforestation is not limited to Kalahandi. Analysis shows that forest cover in the state has come down to 4.72 millon ha from about 6.8 million ha in 1960-61. Out of this existing cover, only 2.73 million ha of forests have a density higher than 40 per cent.

Orissa has been described as a 'growing' state because of silt deposition and sediments at the deltas by the river systems like Mahanadi and Brahmani. The massive silt from deforested and eroded lands settle down on riverbeds and also get deposited on the sea mouths.

According to state's agriculturedepartment statistics, about 4.33 mil-lion ha of the state's 7.2 million ha of agricultural lands are under severe ero-sion and losing fertility. The upland of 2.9 million ha, belonging mostly to tri-bal and very poor farmers, is degraded and barren. With little or no effort to harvest rain, the state loses around 80 per cent of its rainwater as run off from these barren lands thus making water a very scarce commodity.

This results in drought even when there is a slight deficient rainfall. According to K L Pujari in the last few decades, due to erratic rainfall, Orissa has faced droughts more frequently than ever before.

Vanishing green
The 1999 cyclone devastated forests

  District Date of satellite pictures Dense forest (hectare) Open forest (hectare) Total forest (hectare) Mangrove forest (hectare)
Jagatsinghpur October 1999
November 1999
Kendrapada October 1999
November 1999
  Total forest loss 468 867 1,335 488


Starvation deaths: people in Orissa are paying with their lives for myopic government policies

BHAGWAN SAHOO looks pensive and despondent. This 60-yearold farmer is trying hard to redefine his life. A farmer by heart, Bhagwan has decided to quit farming. His two sons have already abandoned the village and him, in search of an alternate livelihood. The 1999 killer cyclone left Bhagwan with nothing. It not only razed his house but the seawater made a thick sheet of salt on his once-fertile fields.

The year 2000 brought an unprecedented drought and dashed his flickering hopes. Strapped for cash, Bhagwan had to borrow money in the hope that the next monsoon would bring him some luck. “Monsoon never fails so frequently,” he had thought then. For more than 40 days the monsoon of 2001 kept pouring and submerged Bhagwan’s lands with water and sand forcing Bhagwan to move to a place where his sons had already migrated.

Bhagwan is not alone. There are many like him who are abandoning their homes. Says Manoj Pradhan, “Usually it is the west Orissa that reports distress migration not the fertile coastal plain region.” But since the last five years more and more people are migrating from coastal Orissa. Droughts, cyclones and floods have hit agriculture the most, the state’s backbone. The production of foodgrain has plummeted alarmingly and this trend is prevalent throughout Orissa. In the last 50 years the food production has decreased by 40 per cent.

Due to calamities, at an average 900,000 ha of agricultural lands lose crops every year in the state. Orissa is India’s poorest state and over 53 per cent of its farmers are marginal with less than one ha of land. And most of them own the uplands, which are totally degraded. “So even a small failure of crop due to any calamity will have a long-term impact on the economy,” says C N Pradhan, secretary of the Bhubaneswar-based N K Chaudhury Centre for Development Studies. The calamities have taken a heavy toll on the state’s economy.

According to the state economic survey report, agriculture’s share in the net state domestic product has decreased from 33 per cent in 1998-99 to 30 per cent in 2000-2001. Besides, constant agricultural losses has brought per capita cultivated land from 0.39 ha in 1950-51 down to a dismal 0.18 ha in 1997-98. While a large part of the rural development budget is spent on calamities, crucial sectors like water resource and basic health don’t get much share. Virtually, the state survives on debts. Orissa gives away 46 per cent of its gross domestic product for debt service.

The per capita gross domestic product of Orissa in 1997-98 was Rs 1,924, which was 41 per cent lower than the national average. Malaria changes form As Orissa experiences frequent disasters and fast becomes an ecological and economic nightmare, its backlash is being felt on the health sector. Parasites causing

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