By Amitav Ghosh, the author of the forthcoming novel Sea of Poppies (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 10/05/08):
The word “cyclone” was coined in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) in the 1840s by an eccentric Englishman named Henry Piddington. Inspired by the great British meteorologist William Reid, Piddington became one of the earliest storm-chasers, besotted with a phenomenon that he once likened to a “beautiful meteorite.” His elegant coinage was originally intended as a generic name for all revolving weather events, but is now applied mainly to the storms of the Indian Ocean region like Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma with devastating effect last week.
Piddington was among the earliest to recognize that a cyclone wreaks most of its damage not through wind but through water, by means of the devastating wave that is known as a “storm surge.” In 1853, when the British colonial authorities were planning an elaborate new port on the outer edge of Bengal’s mangrove forests, he issued an unambiguous warning: “Everyone and everything must be prepared to see a day when, in the midst of the horrors of a hurricane, they will find a terrific mass of salt water rolling in …” His warning was neglected and Port Canning was built, only to be obliterated by a cyclonic surge in 1867.
The phenomenon of the storm surge has been extensively researched since Piddington’s day, yet few public-response systems have drawn the obvious lesson. To this day, the warnings that accompany a storm’s approach typically say nothing about moving to high ground: their prescription is usually to seek shelter indoors. As a result people tend to hunker down in the strongest structure within reach — only to find themselves trapped when the surge comes sweeping through.
But even if they were fully warned, where would those people go? The delta regions of Burma and Bengal are flat and swampy with very few elevations. To move millions quickly is not an easy task even for a technologically advanced country, as Hurricane Katrina showed.
Yet for the rapidly growing countries that surround the Bay of Bengal there is an increasing urgency to find a way to protect themselves. They have experienced some of the world’s most devastating storms. The Hooghly cyclone of 1737, for example, almost erased the infant settlement of Calcutta and was once considered the worst disaster in human history: the surge that accompanied it is reckoned to have reached a height of 40 feet (as opposed to the 12-foot wave generated by Cyclone Nargis).
There are no reliable casualty estimates of that storm, but two other cyclones are known to have killed some 300,000 people each: the Buckerganj cyclone of 1876 and the Bhola cyclone of 1970, both in what is now Bangladesh. As recently as 1991, a storm surge killed more than 100,000 people in Bangladesh.
Nor are the energies of the Bay of Bengal exhausted by its all-too-frequent cyclones — there is also the extremely unstable fault line that produced the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, which took some 230,000 lives. If global warming does bring an increase in cyclonic activity there can be no doubt that the bay’s heavily populated coastline will be among the most vulnerable regions of the world.
Natural phenomena like tsunamis and cyclones have no respect for national boundaries — in fact, they follow trajectories that seem almost to mock the vanities of nation-states. Cyclone Nargis, for example, had it stayed on its original path, would very likely have hit either India or Bangladesh; it was only in the last stretch of her journey that she veered off toward the Irrawaddy Delta.
Nation-states tend to see their interests as being confined within their own borders. But the reality is that the people who live around the Bay of Bengal have a vital interest in common that they do not share with their compatriots in the hinterlands: they are joined by the furies (and let it be said also, the blessings) of that body of water. Clearly they have a common interest in working together to mitigate the effects of natural disasters. For example, by designing inexpensive, elevated shelters that are appropriate to the terrain; by cooperating to preserve the mangrove forests that are the best natural safeguards against surges; and by creating a joint rapid-response force familiar with the local conditions.
This would require these governments first to acknowledge a basic and ever-more evident truth of the human condition, which is that in dealing with nature’s fury, no nation is an island. This is where national pride gets in the way, for this acknowledgment requires a humility that does not come easily; a glaring example was President Bush’s rejection of the offers of foreign aid that poured in after Hurricane Katrina. It was as if the world’s generosity were an affront.
Recent experience has demonstrated in spectacular ways that rich, technologically advanced nations are not invulnerable to extreme weather. What has also been demonstrated, but more quietly, is that a nation need not be wealthy or technologically advanced to be well prepared for natural disasters.
A case in point is Mauritius, a small Indian Ocean island in a zone that meteorologists call a “cyclone factory.” The islanders have evolved a sophisticated system of precautions, combining a network of cyclone shelters with education (including regular drills), a good early warning system and mandatory closings of businesses and schools when a storm threatens. It’s been a remarkable success: Cyclone Gamede of 2007, a monster of a storm that set global meteorological records for rainfall, killed only two people on the island.
I happened to be in Mauritius when Hurricane Katrina struck. I still remember the open-mouthed disbelief with which people there watched the unfolding of the events in Louisiana. Mauritius is a country that has learned, through trial and experience, that early warnings are not enough — preparation also demands public education and political will. In an age when extreme weather events are clearly increasing in frequency, the world would do well to learn from it.