Nearly eighty per cent of Odisha’s coastal tree cover has been washed away. The entire coconut and betel wine crop in the coastal region has been damaged and is expected to take over a decade to recover. Besides, the 10 crore trees on the coastline, one lakh trees of the protected forests and 480 km of Casuarina trees have been destroyed by the Phailin cyclone. Saline inundation has damaged vegetation and it would be three years before the land could be revived. Paddy fields that have been salt encrusted would take at least five years before normal harvests could be obtained. The total crop loss is estimated to be at Rs. 1,750 crore. State’s fluctuating weather conditions suggest that it is reeling under climatic chaos. For the last two decades, Odisha has experienced contrasting extreme weather conditions ranging from heat waves to cyclones and from acute droughts to severe floods. Not only has the frequency increased, but also the areas that have never been impacted are now seen as vulnerable. These resultant disasters have rendered the economy in ruins. Agriculture, which is the state’s mainstay, has been worst hit due to such changes in the micro-climate and natural calamities.
In Gopalpur, persons, who had been affected by the 1999 cyclone, had migrated for labour to other states. Only in the last few years, they had returned and taken up their traditional vocations of betel vine and kevra cultivation. The agricultural economy of the area was just about picking up when Phailin struck. The destruction of both these cash crops will mean the ruin of the poor folk, who will now trudge back to the sweat shops in Surat or the brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh.
In 1998, a heat wave killed around 1,500 people in the state, mostly in the coastal districts, a region that was otherwise known for its moderate temperature. The mean daily maximum and minimum temperature of the state is gradually increasing. Titilagarh and Talcher areas have witnessed an exceptional rise in daily maximum and minimum temperature. Western Odisha was a known calamity hotspot, but now the coastal areas are also experiencing heat waves. The capital city of Bhubaneswar now has a mean maximum temperature above 40°C, which is comparable to Sambalpur, located in the interior. The frequency of cyclones has increased and the state is hit in quick succession. The Super Cyclone of 1999 lasted three days and ravaged 14 coastal districts. Around 15 million people were affected. Two million tonnes of rice crop was lost and 17,000 square kilometre of agricultural land was devastated. Official estimates put the loss at Rs.10,000 crore. Around 200,000 trees were uprooted in about 25,000 hectare (ha) of reserved forest. In the districts of Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapada, the forest cover has now been reduced by 50 per cent. Floods have now become an annual affair in the state. Areas with no history of floods such as districts in western Odisha were also submerged.
Since the state is placed at the head of the Bay of Bengal, where weather changes are formed, even a slight change in the sea’s behaviour can have an immediate impact on the coast. The bay becomes the centre of low pressures, causing heavy rains and cyclones. Scientists are of the opinion that increasing temperature and rainfall, triggered by the global warming and climate change may cause the climate to worsen in Odisha. Apart from more frequent extreme weather, events like floods, droughts and large-scale impact of climate change are also expected to cause an increase in sea level, causing economic loss and disruption to life. With sea-level rise, many coastal systems will experience increased levels of inundation and storm flooding, accelerated coastal erosion, seawater intrusion into fresh groundwater and encroachment of tidal waters into river systems. Coastal erosion will increase substantially, endangering natural protective features such as mangroves and barrier islands, and exacerbating flood risk. Consequently, many coastal communities, dependent on these and fisheries, will suffer. Deltas and low-lying coastal areas will be inundated by sea-level rise. Increased rainfall during the monsoons will increase the frequency of floods. Areas already prone to floods will suffer more.
Disasters have a long-term impact, as people are forced to spend more of their earnings on basics like building homes and agriculture. The already stressed ecosystem is made even more fragile with each disaster. And the poor living on the margins of subsistence are forced into greater penury. With each disaster, their capacity to rebuild is reduced.