Lives saved, but that’s only part of the story

Cyclone Phailin, although a frightening and powerful display of weather, was not the disaster it could have been. We have reason to be glad: the tremendous evacuation efforts of the Indian government, supported by the pre-emptive disaster risk reduction work locally by organisations including Tearfund, paid off and saved lives. However, there is hesitancy in any note of gladness. India now faces the reality that thousands have lost homes and livelihoods and experience a much higher risk of starvation. Communities will suffer from the knock on effects that follow disasters, such as an increase in child trafficking.

Having visited a neighbouring part of the cyclone-hit region, I saw people practising for such an emergency. I saw young people working through a rota so they knew whose job it was to run to the next village to alert people to an impending cyclone; I heard from people running small businesses about how they safely hole up documents that show their identity and rights of ownership, and I visited cyclone shelters which in more stable times double up as health centres or classrooms. On Friday these mechanisms were set in motion in India, and lives being spared will be proved to be only be some of the gain for these more resilient communities.

PHOTO: A member of the youth disaster response team in south west Bangladesh shows me an evacuation route that she helped to build.

Cyclone Phailin only took 15-25 lives, compared with 10,000 lives with Cyclone Orissa: in the understated words of my nine year old son reading this over my shoulder, ‘that’s amazing’. The Indian government’s priority for saving lives was spot on. However, it took a story I heard from a man whose family home and business was destroyed by the tsunami when I lived in Sri Lanka, for me to realise that the death toll, or in Cyclone Phailin’s case, the lack of death toll, only tells part of the story. When a family loses its only means of making a living, years or even generations of suffering can follow.

Cyclones are affecting more and more people: the number of tropical cyclone disasters worldwide in the 1970s was 22 a year, but by the 2000s that figure had almost tripled to 63. The winds which reached 135 miles per hour in India over the weekend uprooted trees, wrecked crops and blew roofs off homes. That’s why it’s so important that Tearfund’s support for disaster risk reduction programmes in India also addressed these broader issues, such as helping communities to have more than one way of earning an income, so that they are not purely dependent on the land, thus increasing their resilience in the face of cyclones and other disasters. I wonder how many hundreds of livelihoods or situations of intense food insecurity may have been spared because of this following Cyclone Phailin, for indeed there will be thousands devastatingly affected as India now faces a massive clear up operation.

PHOTO: Another member of the Bangldeshi village shows me a floating garden: it survives floods, improving food security in the face of disasters and pressures from climate change.

The Indian government must also take an holistic approach in its aid and development, strengthening disaster risk reduction elements. There are only 18 months to go before the UK stops its overseas aid commitment to India and yet the number of people living in poverty in the country is staggeringly high – estimates are at least 200 million, but it’s possibly double that. The needs of India’s poorest population will arguably be best cared for if the government supports them in building their own capacity and resilience to withstand disasters and other variations in the weather – both of which will only get worse because of climate change – so that once they safely return to their homes, they can continue to develop a prosperous and resilient life.

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