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Cyclone Nisarga: How covid-19 hit Mumbai is preparing for a stormy week

Thane: Fishing boats seen anchored at a shore following a warning by Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) for fishermen not to enter the Arabian Sea for the next two days as a precaution against cyclone 'Nisarga', at Uttan beach in Thane, Monday, June 1, 2020. (PTI Photo/Mitesh Bhuvad) (PTI)Premium
Thane: Fishing boats seen anchored at a shore following a warning by Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) for fishermen not to enter the Arabian Sea for the next two days as a precaution against cyclone 'Nisarga', at Uttan beach in Thane, Monday, June 1, 2020. (PTI Photo/Mitesh Bhuvad) (PTI)

With Cyclone Nisarga expected to make landfall on 3 June on the Maharashtra coast, pandemic-hit Mumbai is scrambling to put its defences in place

There’s a cyclone brewing off the coast of Mumbai. And it has everyone worried.

On 31 May, a relief camp set up in Versova, in the city, for those rendered homeless by the covid-19 lockdown was dismantled. Its residents—around 60 migrant workers from across India—were moved to a state-owned guest-house in Ghatkopar.

“We were planning to anyway shift in the first week of June, ahead of the monsoon," says Abraham Mathai, former chairman of minorities commission of Maharashtra and the organizer of the camp. “But the cyclone warning made us do it immediately."

‘Nisarga’ is expected to intensify in into a Severe Cyclonic Storm in the next 12 hours, says the latest Indian Metrological Department bulletin, issued on the morning of 2 June. Starting 3 June, winds at speeds of 110kmph with wind gusts of 120 kmph are expected to hit coastal Maharashtra in the Raigad, Mumbai, Thane and Palghar districts. Rough seas, along with a storm surge of about 1-2 metres, is likely to inundate low-lying areas of Mumbai and Thane.

On Monday, Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray held a video conference with home minister Amit Shah on the state’s preparedness in the face of the cyclone. According to a press note released from the CM’s office, in case hospitals with covid-19 patients are hit, non-covid-19 hospitals would be made available. At least 11 teams comprising officials of the fire, health and disaster management departments, as wells as 94 lifeguards are on alert, according to a Hindustan Times report. Warnings have already been issued to fishermen against entering the sea.

“We have a total of 10 teams deployed along the coast of Maharashtra," says Sachidanand Gawade, deputy commandant at the National Disaster Rescue Force (NDRF) unit stationed in Mumbai. He adds that three teams, consisting of 75 people in all, are on stand-by in Mumbai, ready to carry out evacuations, if necessary. “We’re thinking of covid-19 as well and will ensure social distancing during these operations. We’ve already received PPE kits for the purpose," he says.

Adam Sobel, atmospheric scientist at Columbia University, has been issuing regular warnings about cyclone Nisarga via his Twitter account. “The Mumbai metropolitan area has 20 million people, is very vulnerable to cyclones at the best of times," he wrote on his blog on 1 June. “On the other hand... those models that yesterday were predicting much more powerful storms are no longer doing so." But it would be inadvisable to let the guard down. “These forecasts are still just forecasts," he added. “Things could change."

Nearly half of Mumbai’s population lives in slums, a significant proportion of which consists of kutcha houses. If the cyclone makes a landfall in Mumbai, it’s this population that will bear the brunt. Tree-fall, landslides and high winds blowing off tin-roofs are some of the predicted outcomes. Mumbai has an average elevation of 14m (45.9 feet) above sea level. Most of its fishing villages and a significant number of its slums are in low-lying areas. A storm surge of 2m, as forecast for Nisarga, can cause havoc in coastal areas.

“Highrises are designed to withstand cyclones," says Pankaj Joshi, executive director of the city-based Urban Design Research Institute. “At most, there are chances of loose windows crashing in. But the substantial damage will be to informal slums: kutcha houses and baithi chawls. Low-lying areas like Parel and Malwani might be flooded, as we see every monsoon. But if there’s high winds too, nearly 42% of Mumbai’s population is extremely vulnerable."

Most of the storms in the Arabian Sea are known to move over to India’s north-western regions like Gujarat, before going to Karachi in Pakistan and Oman. Climate scientists believe that cyclone Nisarga’s expected landfall in Mumbai or it’s environs, an event first of its kind, is a result of climate change. For instance, this will be the first time since records began in 1891 that a cyclone will make landfall on the Maharashtra coast in the pre-monsoon month of June.

“We already see a detectable increase in post-monsoon tropical cyclones over the Arabian Sea," says climate scientist Roxy Mathew Koll of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune. "Are we moving towards such a trend during the pre-monsoon also? During the recent years we have seen a surge in Arabian Sea cyclones occurring close to the monsoon onset but we are yet to understand if there is a climate change element to it. Regardless, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change) reports indicate an increase in Arabian Sea cyclones during the pre- and post-monsoon seasons as a response to the rapid ocean warming trends."

According to a paper released last year, with sea level rise, large parts of Mumbai will be under water annually by 2050.

“The way we’re building our cities is itself a problem," says Joshi. “The more we build, the more we see our problems increasing. Maharashtra has been rather lucky in terms of avoiding cyclones all these years. But if this becomes a regular event, there would need to be substantial reflection in terms of building policy."

Mumbai has several infrastructural challenges when it comes to developing resilience to climate change and extreme weather events, but right now the focus is on surviving the cyclone unscathed. The city will be severely tested this week.

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