Unseasonal storms, weather, a forewarning | Sunday Observer

Unseasonal storms, weather, a forewarning

3 December, 2017

Once again, large parts of the country are reeling from the sudden impact of a powerful tropical storm. Tens of thousands have been temporarily displaced from their homes and workplaces, at least eleven people have died, a score more announced ‘missing’ at sea, and dozens more injured.

Last week’s storm is the result of a ‘tropical storm system’, the next in severity after the the cyclonic storm system. Over four days, sustained heavy rainfall and, strong gusts of wind, swept across the southern and western quarters of the island. This left at least four districts in this part of the country suffering from blocked roads, a rash of minor earthslips, rising minor flooding, damage to crops, vegetation and buildings and, the displacement of whole villages and suburbs.

Even as the country counts the cost of last week’s tropical storm system that, fortunately, only side-swiped the island as it moved across the Bay of Bengal, people are bracing for a second such storm system that approaches. This one, too, originates in the Bay of Bengal and has a trajectory that, again, only side-swipes the island this coming week. This storm system, too, is of the ‘tropical storm’ category and, only second in severity to a cyclone,

Under the coordination of the National Disaster Management Centre, immediate disaster response mechanisms were activated well in advance of the approaching storm in most of the affected parts of the island. President Maithripala Sirisena, who monitored the storm situation while on a state visit to South Korea, ordered the deployment of armed forces units in accordance with pre-planned contingency measures for natural disasters.

Within hours, the armed services, which has had to deal with the tsunami catastrophe even as it fought a decades-long insurgency, had deployed over one hundred emergency response teams across the storm-affected areas. The civilian disaster response agencies, including specialised non-governmental organisations, are also responding well to the national contingency.

More importantly, the state administrative system at national, provincial and local levels has now matured in its mechanisms of emergency response delivery. Not only are local disaster teams activating on time and with improved efficiency, but the politicians seem to be learning to leave the designated public servants to do their job without interference.

Equally importantly, the news media, benefitting from a booming sectoral growth, today offer the public an un-precedented quality of weather information. This includes detailed and regular metereological reports, forecasts and digitised mapping on the news airwaves and internet on the one hand, and on the other, a continuous monitoring and reporting of the affects of storm as it occurred.

Today, more than ever before, weather forecasting and disaster preparation is serving society and helping save lives, livelihood, property, economic infrastructure, and natural resources.

However, every storm and every natural disaster is another exercise in government and public response that measures current capacities and technological preparedness. Every life lost is an indication of failure in either anticipating disaster risks or, adequate social forewarning.

Finally, what is most significant about these successive, powerful, storms is not their frequency but the fact that they are quite out of season. Equally significant is that the seasonal weather for this time of year has, again, let down farmers, the estate sector and others dependent of weather patterns for their livelihood.

Thus, where and when it should have rained in the latter part of 2017, it has not. And, where and when there should not have been stormy weather and frequent rainfall, there has been in that same period.

Specifically, the North-East Monsoon that, for millennia of humanity’s time on Earth, had blown across the Indian Ocean during the November-April period, has, this year, largely failed to bring rain to the two-thirds of the country in the northern, north-central and eastern regions of the island. Major farming sectors in these regions – technically known as the ‘Dry Zone’ – especially rice cultivation, have suffered due to the failure of the rains usually brought by the North-East Monsoon.

Meanwhile, the other regions of the island, namely, the central, western and southern regions, are now being battered with rain and wind at a time when they should be relatively dry except for the rare down-pour. These regions, technically known as the ‘Wet Zone’, receive rain mainly from the South West Monsoon, which this year, as in many recent years, did not bring enough of the expected rainfall with a similar impact on the economy and livelihoods.

These new weather patterns are an ominous indicator of things to come in our global climate. They are timely reminders that humanity must change tracks if it is to save itself and its safe habitat on this, our only home – Planet Earth.

Thus, even as we congratulate ourselves on slowly improving emergency response services and relief systems, we are now prompted to look ahead and understand the looming threat to humanity from the on-going changes in global climate.

It is not enough to rescue people and economies from stormy weather. The global climate crisis warns us that the world-level behaviour of people and economies requires a shift in human civilisation from a wasteful system of production and consumption to one that protects and nurtures the natural habitat.