DELHI -- This Letter presents the findings of the two-week trip Ritaji and I made to Orissa. We met people in Bhubaneshwar, visited cyclone-devastated areas on the coast, learned about the struggle of the fishermen on Chilika Lake, visited ancient temples, talked about climate change in Sambalpur and got a chance to see some adivasi villages around Bisra. The itinerary was as follows:
28.2. -Bhubaneshwar (1 900 km)
1.3. Bhubaneshwar-Jagatsinghpur (70 km)
3.3. Jagatsinghpur-Bhubaneshwar (70 km)
4.3. Bhubaneshwar-Palada (~100 km)
5.3. Palada-Puri-Konark (~130 km)
6.3. Konark-Bhubaneshwar- (~100 km)
7.3. Sambalpur (~290 km)
8.3. Sambalpur-Raurkela-Bisra (190 km)
9.3. Bisra-Raurkela (20 km)
11.3. -Delhi (1 650 km)
This Letter has been delayed considerably for a number of reasons. First, I wanted to finish the longer report on Orissa cyclones before writing the short piece for this Letter. Secondly, anti-Clinton demonstrations of the last two weeks took quite some time. Thirdly, I have been busy working on a report on equity in international climate politics. (More on anti-Clinton activities and the equity report in the next Letter.) And last but not least I have realised I am rather slow at writing these Letters. My apologies.
Super cyclone in Orissa: reaping the grim harvest
The two cyclones that hit Orissa in late October 1999 had a devastating impact. With wind speeds reaching 300 km/h and storm surges of several metres, they damaged three million homes and key infrastructure, killed around 10,000 people, made 7.5 million people homeless and affected another 15 million people. Most of the tree cover on the coast and closer to half a million livestock were lost. Economic costs may run into hundreds of billions of rupees (billions of US dollars). Rebuilding the area will take years if not decades.
However, statistics are dumb when it comes to human suffering. No figure can express what it feels like to see your loved ones die. The survivors are left with innumerable sad stories to tell, constantly haunted by ghoulish images.
We met some of the survivors in a temporary shelter in Ersama - the worst hit block in Orissa. We could see from their faces that these women had been through a lot. As they sat on the mud floor of a temporary shelter in Ersama, they recounted calmly what happened on that fateful Black Friday.
Sita Beura (60) told that it was drizzling when it all started. There had been a cyclone warning, but people were only expecting strong winds as with earlier cyclones - not the devastating flood several metres in height. Beura survived by clinging to a tree. She says that she would have been dead if it were not for the help of relief organisations.
A woman of 65 with sad eyes and beautifully black hair - the secret is the ghee (clarified butter) she applies regularly, she confided - told that she lost most of her family in the cyclone. They used to keep as many as 80 cattle, but now all the animals were gone. However, that was insignificant compared with the human tragedy: "What is there to mourn about lost cattle when so many people have lost their lives?"
Cyclones are nothing new in the Indian subcontinent. However, the extent of devastation caused by the October cyclones was unprecedented. Probably never earlier had the winds and subsequent storm surge penetrated so deep inland.
Everyone we met in different parts of Orissa seemed to agree that the devastation was largely manmade. Earlier the coast was covered with a buffer zone of mangrove forests several kilometres wide. In addition to providing an important breeding ground for fish and a secure livelihood for both people and animals, the forests slowed down wind speeds and prevented large-scale flooding. Especially since 1960s deforestation has progressed at an alarming rate and now most of the forest cover is a thing of the past.
While uncertainties abound, there are fairly good reasons to believe that also global warming affected the cyclones. According to statistics, warming has increased the frequency of pre- and post-monsoon cyclones in the North Indian Ocean. Many studies have suggested a link between climate change and an increase in the frequency and force of extreme weather events such as cyclones - climate change warms sea surface temperatures and cyclones require warm waters to thrive. Furthermore, it can be asked whether any weather event can be saved from a human influence in today's changing climate.
Someone could argue that people in Orissa are now reaping the grim harvest of misplaced development priorities and indifference to protecting the nature. However, if a Bengali refugee cuts down a patch of forest to settle down or a poor peasant resorts to selling fuel wood, they can hardly be blamed for trying to survive. Many people point the finger at local authorities and the state government for failing to do their duties.
But even government officials in Orissa are helpless in front of global warming. People in most southern countries are producing only miniscule amounts of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change; industrialised countries are responsible for most of the global emissions. How can industrialised countries justify their unsustainable consumption patterns that cause death and misery to millions and millions of people in the South? This is the question at the heart of international climate politics and equity and forms the backbone of my work on climate issues. And after visiting Orissa, this is the question that I continue to ask with an increased sense of urgency.
The struggle for Chilika lake
On the coast of Orissa not very far from the areas worst hit by the cyclones lies Chilika Lake. Comprising about 1,000 square kilometres of shallow brackish water, it is considered the biggest brackish-water lake in India - some even say the biggest in Asia. Designated as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, it is a breeding ground for migratory birds that travel there every winter all the way from Siberia. For many people in Orissa Chilika is a unique treasure and a cause for pride.
But now Chilika's environment is threatened. The lake depends on the fragile interaction of rivers that bring fresh water and tides mixing in salty seawater. Deforestation on riverbanks and areas adjacent to the lake cause soil erosion releasing large quantities of silt, which is then carried to the lake. Due to siltation, the lake area is diminishing by two square kilometres a year. Similarly, the average depth of water in the summer has reduced from three metres in 1922 to 1.6 metres in the 90s. Siltation also clogs the connection between the lake and the ocean making the water less saline.
An even bigger threat for Chilika is prawn cultivation. Started in the 80s, it proliferated in the next decade as it seemed to be a lucrative source of export revenue. Unfortunately prawn farms contribute further to siltation, destroy natural vegetation and pollute the water with extra nutrients. Many claim that the money and power involved in prawn farming has corrupted local officials and politicians, creating the rule of "prawn Mafia" in the region.
For the around 20,000 fishermen and their families living near the lake, preservation of the environment is not only a question of bird habitats and natural beauty; it is a question of livelihood and even survival. There has been a decline in the fish catch largely due to the deterioration of the environment. As the population continues to grow, there are more people sharing a diminishing number of fish.
To save their livelihood, fishermen have been actively involved in Chilika Bachao Andolan (Save the Chilika Movement). The movement has raised awareness of environmental threats, organised public meetings and seminars, lobbied decision-makers and organised dharnas to highlight threats to the future of the lake. The movement has been able to convince the industrial giant Tata to withdraw from a prawn cultivation project. One of its greatest achievements so far is the Orissa High Court judgment banning intensive prawn culture in Chilika.
The struggle for the preservation of Chilika and the livelihood of fishermen is not yet over. Deforestation, erosion and siltation continue and prawn culture is yet to be eradicated totally from Chilika. But thanks to fishermen, the future of Chilika looks much brighter.
In Palada, a village of 2,000, we stayed overnight in a school building. The villagers went out of their way to provide us with food and shelter and wherever we went, there was always a group of young boys following us with great curiosity. When asked about their future profession, one little kid wanted to become a doctor and another said he was going to be a teacher - good plans indeed. But, I was glad to notice, most of the boys planned to continue like their fathers, grandfathers and forefathers had done for centuries - as fishermen living off the riches of Chilika Lake.
Highlights from the fortnight
ALCOHOL AND JESUS - THE PLIGHT OF ADIVASIS
For many, the word adivasi (tribal) evokes pictures of people leading simple and traditional lives in close contact with the nature. Before going to Orissa, I was told that the adivasis there are the poorest and the most backward in India semi-naked and untouched by civilization. Visiting two tribal villages around Bisra on the border of Orissa and Bihar was an experience that pretty much shattered my beliefs on how adivasis live in the 21st century India.
The area around Kapranda is barren and there are few trees left. We meet an old man between 60 and 70 who tells about the vast forests that used to surround the villages. Bears, deer and even tigers roamed in the forests. Trees provided fodder for the livestock and vegetables for the villagers.
Now the forests are only a distant memory. Villagers are engaged in brewing handia, a local alcohol made out of rice that sells at a couple of rupees per jug. Our guide from the development organisation DISHA does not want to take us to the local market as there would be many drunken people that might cause trouble. Especially for many male villagers handia seems to provide a wanted escape from the dire reality.
This is even clearer in the second village, Jharbeda, which we find at the end of a dusty road. Villagers gather around us and sit on a straw mat. All men including the village priest are drunk, some hopelessly so. They tell that they travel regularly 30 to 40 kilometres on foot to the neighbouring Bihar that still has some forests left. There they cut trees illegally, carry them all the way back and sell them at a pittance. Most of the money goes to buying alcohol; some is used to purchase rice. When I ask what they will do when also Bihar has lost all its forests, the answer is very simple: "We will die."
For the people in Jharbeda, the only other source of consolation apart from handia is the religion. We are taken to a Catholic church that stands on the adjoining hill. The drunken priest takes the podium in front of a statue of bleeding Christ and starts reading from the Bible with foggy and unfocused eyes. Men sitting on one straw mat and women on the other sing a strange and beautiful hymn. When our guide takes a picture, the priest is distracted by the flashlight and loses the line, but he comes back with a vengeance singing even louder than earlier.
What is most striking is the apathy and lethargy that has taken hold of the villagers. They do not seem to have much hope for the future and do not even try to improve their lot. They do not bother to plant trees, as they are afraid that another cyclone would uproot them or government officials would come and cut them. This is in stark contrast with the efforts of the fishermen in Palada.
The current rates of deforestation, climate change, population growth, corruption, alcoholism, crime and poverty already constitute enough problems. Knowing that these people have all but lost the desire to improve their lives, I really do not dare to think what their future will be like.
A hot day is almost over and the sun is about to set just to emerge after a while to shed its light on some other corner of the world. After driving first for an hour on roads that turn narrower and more riddled with potholes we reach a village a stone's throw away from the sea shore. We leave the jeep and continue on foot. We can see the sea on the horizon.
Having walked through a field we come across a small stream. Luckily the water is shallow and we can cross the stream by wading. Tiny seashells by the path reveal that once sea had come several kilometres inland.
The beach is stunningly beautiful. A forceful but still gentle wind keeps the sand in perpetual motion. The beach is devoid of garbage and the water is clear. There is not a single soul to be seen apart from ourselves. I wrap my pantlegs and rush to wade in the strong waves that carry crowns of white foam.
Watching this idyllic view it is difficult to imagine that only four months earlier probably the strongest cyclone in the history of Orissa had hit the very same beach. Even when we visit the worst affected area around Ersama the destruction is still very much visible. Massive banyan trees have been uprooted and only a few coconut palms managed to resists the winds. The ActionAid workers accompanying us show a place where they had found human bodies. Animal skeletons blotch the roadsides and next to the beach five cow carcasses are huddled up together - as if the poor animals tried to find comfort from each other when the cyclone ravaged the area. White skeletons and empty shells are all that remains of two beautiful and big sea turtles.
Observing the extent of devastation is naturally sad. What makes it upsetting is that much of this could have been avoided had the forests that once protected the area remained. By destroying the mangroves, humans have not only caused vast damage to nature; they have been piling their own funeral pyre.
What is most disturbing, however, is that even worse is likely to come. Scientists predict that climate change is going to increase and aggravate extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, heat waves - and cyclones. Last time I got a chance to see the Indian Ocean was five years ago in Mozambique. Fate or coincidence: immediately prior to leaving for Orissa international news reports told about floods ravaging the coast of Mozambique. Many experts raised the possible connection to global warming.
I am afraid I have seen to the future. And I do not like what I saw.