Agility in Response to Extreme Weather Events

By: Anamitra Anurag Danda
For certain places extreme weather events no longer seem to be statistically extreme but a norm. The populace of such places is likely to find it increasingly more expensive to be physically secure and lead a life they are used to.
Planning n Mitigation

Climate change impacts could be reversed over a reasonable period of time provided the people have access to facilities and services that enhance their various capitals enabling them to make a better living in places that are less prone to extreme weather events. Over time, this would lead to managed and organic retreat but this will call into question existing notions of property ownership and change in land use.

On Sagar Island, about ten years ago, a fellow researcher and I were taken by surprise – caught in a storm. That afternoon, we ran for shelter like never before – as uprooted bush and shrub flew by us. While trying to think of a suitable title for this article, this incident came to mind – although agility by no means depicts the nimbleness to outrun a storm but of the mind – to deal with situations arising out of repeated high-intensity weather events that seem to be losing the ‘extreme’ tag – statistically speaking, for extreme also denotes extending far beyond the normal range of events experienced in the past.

Having lived and worked in a region that witnesses such events rather frequently, I feel I can articulate the need of such regions, its people and ecosystems. Thus, I will speak for the Sundarban, specifically the Indian Sundarban although the situation in Bangladesh Sundarban is probably not much different. High-intensity weather events are not new to the Sundarban – the Bay of Bengal area is known to witness such events more often than the other parts of the subcontinent. There are projections that in the medium term, such events will become less frequent in the region. However, within the reduced number of such weather events, the more intense ones ranging between severe cyclonic storms and super cyclones are expected to be more frequent than in the past. In fact, trend analysis of past data of 120 years (1891-2010) shows a rise in severe cyclonic storms by about 26 per cent (O P Singh 2007, ‘Long-term trends in the frequency of severe cyclones of Bay of Bengal: Observations and simulations’, Mausam). Given the fact that conventional development has so far passed by the very densely populated Sundarban, the people here live a precarious existence at best of times. Obviously, the situation is much worse when a high intensity event occurs; the little physical capital that the people have, is degraded and dependence on natural capital is heightened, threatening the integrity of the ecosystem and the endangered species it supports. This, of course, does not happen uniformly across the entire region, some places and people are more prone than others. The vulnerability is a result of a combination of factors some of which are very expensive to control, if at all possible, while some other factors are more controllable and if controlled, also have spill over benefits. For example, acquiring employable skills, provided (i) facilities to impart such skills are available, and (ii) the facilities are accessible to those who wish to make use of these.

The Sundarban has 54 inhabited islands while the rest of the region is forested. The forested section has multiple feathers on its cap – World Heritage Site, Tiger Reserve, and National Park, besides sanctuaries. The forest fringe villages are relatively less developed and dependence on natural resource is higher – as is its vulnerability to high intensity events.

The region is experiencing net land loss due to rapid relative sea level rise (S Hazra et. al., 2002, ‘Sea level and associated changes in the Sundarban’, Science and Culture) and accelerated erosion, not only of the inhabited but also of the forested islands. This is a double whammy for the ecosystem and the endangered species, particularly the terrestrial ones. Between 1969 and 2009, Indian Sundarban delta lost 210.25 sq km of which 65.06 sq km has been lost in the last decade. (A A Danda et. al., 2011 ‘Indian Sundarbans delta: A vision’, WWF-India). Net land loss and rapidly growing human population is pushing the density even higher, forcing many villagers to solely depend on natural resources while at the same time the terrestrial component of the ecosystem itself is faced with shrunken space. Therefore, on the one hand the mangrove ecosystem is trying to find a new equilibrium – on the other, human interference and exploitation is making it more difficult to achieve it. Ideally, the ecosystem should have had the space to migrate but rigid human settlements do not provide such an opportunity. Being a dynamic delta, permanent impermanence is built into the system but it is human frailty that has made it oblivious to the reality. Even without global warming and consequent impacts, maintaining rigid human settlements would have been difficult as might have been the case in the past since human relics from the past are not uncommon in the forested parts of the Sundarban, some of which date back more than thousand years before present.

For example, the embankments that have made sustaining human life in the Sundarban possible are failing more frequently and it is becoming increasingly more expensive to rebuild and maintain the structures. Depending on the kind on intervention the expenditure could be between 1.5 crore and 12.5 crore per km. The latter figure is the sanctioned expenditure to rebuild 400 km of embankment post cyclone Aila. With every rebuilding effort, fringe dwellers are losing land and it is only now that monetary compensation is being offered. However, monetary compensation in the absence of employable skills and other capitals, as the rural community has come to realise, provides only a momentary spike in well being. Can we not look beyond monetary compensation in the changed scenario where it actually pays to sequester carbon from the atmosphere?

What if the vulnerable communities are offered besides solatium the choice of retaining ownership of the geographical space that they exploited to make a living. The land is allowed to change character into something that not only helps the ecosystem to find a new equilibrium but also provides a revenue stream to the owners of the geographical space? On first reading this might seem all over the place but the idea is not new and several states in the United States have laws to this effect and rulings by Supreme Courts. There are in fact rulings by the Texas Supreme Court (J G Titus 2011, ‘Rolling easements: Climate ready estuaries programme’, USEPA). The document may be downloaded from water.epa.gov/type/oceb/cre/upload/rollingeasementsprimer.pdf. These provide an alternative vision in which future use of low-lying coastal and estuarine lands is based on the premise that eventually the land must give way to the rising sea. There are more than a dozen approaches for ensuring that wetlands, mangroves and beaches can migrate inland, as people remove buildings, roads, and other structures from land as it becomes submerged. Collectively, these approaches are known as rolling easements. While this is in progress, facilities and services need to become available at safer places for younger cohorts to acquire new skills and capital so as to enable them to make a living elsewhere without compromising on their well being.

In concrete terms, it would mean the following four steps to be taken in phases, with overlaps as required. Step 1 would entail identifying the vulnerable low-lying areas and making special statutory provisions for the people of such areas for accelerated access to facilities and services that enhance their human, social, political, financial and physical capital. Step 2 would involve developing physical infrastructure in light of current and predicted impacts of high-intensity weather events, in terms of secure housing and facilities for development of human capital and off-farm livelihoods in secondary or tertiary production sectors. In Step 3, the identified population needs to be counselled and provided solatium as well as the choice of retaining ownership and use rights over lands they have access to, so that the older cohort can continue to lead a life they are used to, should they choose to. In Step 4, as the population of the identified vulnerable low-lying areas start to migrate to the newly developed areas, the land if unused by the current access right holders should be restored as mangrove forest with the mechanism to direct monetary benefits from carbon sequestration to current access right holders.

In this four-step approach it is envisaged that there will be improvement in human development, prevention of avoidable loss of life and livelihood due to high intensity weather events through managed and organic retreat, partial reversal of ecosystem degradation, and improvement in ecosystem services. Returns from a healthy mangrove ecosystem in terms of ecosystem services are known to be in the range of 2000 to 9000 USD per hectare per year which is not necessarily the case with built and managed environment. This, however, requires agility of mind, individual as well as collective.

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