New Delhi: Extremely severe cyclonic storm Tauktae, which hit southern Gujarat's Saurashtra coast on May 17, brought heavy rain to all seven states and union territories (UTs) on India's western coast. Thousands of uprooted trees damaged residences, vehicles and essential infrastructure such as electricity lines. Around 150,000 people had to be evacuated in Gujarat. At least 90 people died.

The damage has drawn into sharp focus the need for adequate disaster mitigation infrastructure like shelters, all-weather roads and embankments in light of increasing cyclonic storms on the west coast. Installation of this infrastructure, however, has not kept pace in this region, official data show.

Phase-II of the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project (NCRMP), being implemented since January 2015 by the National Disaster Management Agency and state governments, covers all the west coast states--Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala--and the eastern state of West Bengal. None of the west coast states has met their targets for building multi-purpose cyclone shelters under the NCRMP. While Gujarat has built fewer than half of its planned shelters, Maharashtra has built none. West Bengal on the eastern coast, by contrast, has built all its planned shelters. The western states also lag in installing other critical infrastructure such as saline embankments and underground cabling to ensure continued supply of essential services, and developing early warning dissemination systems.

The Arabian Sea coast has historically experienced fewer storms than India's eastern Bay of Bengal coast and normally sees just one cyclonic storm per year, according to India Meteorological Department (IMD) data. Tauktae, however, was the eighth cyclonic storm to form over the Arabian Sea since 2019, per IMD data, and the second severe cyclone to make landfall on the west coast within a year, after Cyclone Nisarga hit Raigad, Maharashtra, in early June 2020. Tauktae is thus only the latest evidence of rising frequency of cyclonic storms forming in the Arabian Sea with the warming of oceans, climate change experts say. The increase in both intensity and frequency of cyclones on the western coast due to global heating was also noted in an NDMA study in 2018.

Installation of mitigation structures behind schedule

The Arabian Sea normally sees the formation of just one cyclonic storm per year. Between 2015 and 2020, cyclonic disturbances over the Arabian Sea increased to nearly four per year, and cyclones and severe cyclones to two per year, on average. "This is the fourth consecutive year where we have seen a pre-monsoon cyclone over the Arabian Sea. It is also the third consecutive year when a cyclone storm has come very close to the west coast of India. Sea surface temperatures have risen rapidly during the past century and this has led to an increase in the frequency and intensity of cyclones in the Arabian Sea," Roxy Mathew Koll, scientist at the
Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology
, Pune, told IndiaSpend.

The NCRMP, funded by the World Bank, the central and state governments, is being implemented in 13 cyclone-prone coastal states and union territories since 2011. It involves two key components relating to mitigating risk from disasters--creation of physical infrastructure such as multi-purpose cyclone shelters, roads for evacuation and development of early warning dissemination systems--among others. Phase I ran from 2011 to 2018 and covered Andhra Pradesh and Odisha on the Bay of Bengal coast. The project is currently in its second phase, covering all the states on the western Arabian Sea coast--Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala--and West Bengal in the east. Earlier slated for completion by March 2021, the project has been extended to September 2022.

Tamil Nadu, also on India's eastern coast, is not covered under NCRMP. But it has implemented the Coastal Disaster Risk Reduction Project (CDRRP) since 2013 with financial assistance from the World Bank to mitigate natural hazards along the coast. Under CDRRP, the state has installed early warning systems and built 121 multi-purpose evacuation shelters.

Multi-purpose cyclone shelters (MPCS) are a first line of defence against high-speed winds and floods, according to the NDMA. None of the states on the west coast have met their respective targets under NCRMP for building MPCS, data show. The three eastern states of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal built all their planned shelters.

Gujarat, which bore the maximum fury of Cyclone Tauktae, is supposed to build 76 MPCS but has completed fewer than half, with 42 still under construction.

Gujarat's performance, though, is better than neighbouring Maharashtra's, where zero shelters have been built against 11 planned under NCRMP. Cyclone Nisarga had killed six people and injured 15 in Maharashtra in June 2020. There was a delay in finalising tenders for shelters as no bids were received initially, a Maharashtra government official aware of developments told IndiaSpend, and added that the state will now seek additional financing and issue work orders soon.

In Goa, where 12 shelters have been planned, only one has been completed. Work on MPCS had been delayed in Goa and three out of 10 awarded contracts were terminated due to non-performance and had to be re-tendered, a World Bank review of project implementation had noted in 2019.

Kerala, which saw major loss of lives of fisherfolk during Cyclone Ockhi in 2017, has completed only seven of 17 planned MPCS.

Karnataka was closest to completing targets for building shelters, having already constructed eight of 11 planned. "We faced delays in completing our target due to the Covid-19 pandemic as well due to some issues in the design of the shelters. We expect the last two shelters to be completed by next March," Rajkumar Pujari, project in-charge, NCRMP, Karnataka, told IndiaSpend. In Karnataka, the World Bank review made a note of severe delays in payments to contractors.

States are also yet to complete construction of saline embankments, meant to prevent ingress of saline water into agricultural fields. Work in Goa had stalled due to land availability problems, Maharashtra had completed project development documents, and in Kerala, 22 km of saline embankments were under construction, according to the World Bank review.

Laying of underground cables to prevent cyclone-triggered hazards such as collapsing of electricity poles and to prevent damage to power supply infrastructure is also part of the NCRMP project in three states--Goa, Maharashtra and West Bengal. In Goa, 80% of work to lay underground cables over 98 km has been completed, and 20% is under execution, data show. In Maharashtra, 144 km of a planned 471 km of underground cabling has been completed in coastal Palghar, Raigad and Ratnagiri districts, leaving 327 km (69%) of work pending.

West Bengal, meanwhile, has laid 472.46 km of underground cabling out of a planned 500 km. Only 27.54 km is pending.

This is only the progress on cabling work that has been planned under the NCRMP. Whether these plans are adequate has been thrown in doubt by delays of several days in restoring power supply in parts of Goa, after Cyclone Tauktae brought down electrical poles, broke wires and damaged transformers all over the state. While those parts of Goa which had underground cabling saw power supply restored quickly, power supply had still not reached pre-cyclone levels in many areas on May 19, three days after the cyclone triggered gusting and heavy rains in the state. Meanwhile, Goans posted pleas for information about electricity supply on social media on behalf of families using electric generators for Covid-19 patients requiring oxygen support machines at home.

Work on building evacuation bridges and tendering of work for early warning dissemination systems is also pending in some states, per the World Bank review.

"There have been implementation delays due to several factors including severe weather conditions, local site conditions (including water logging and floods, landslips), availability of land, land transfer to the project, repeat bidding due to poor/no participation of bidders, and non-availability of labour during the Covid-19 pandemic (since the March 2020 lockdown)," a World Bank spokesperson told IndiaSpend. "The delays are being reviewed such that all investments under the project are completed before the end of the project in 2022."

IndiaSpend has also sought responses on NCRMP implementation from the NDMA and its project in-charge for the NCRMP. We will update the article should they respond.

NCRMP is an important project for building cyclone-ready infrastructure and it needs renewed focus in light of the recent cyclones in the Arabian Sea, Abinash Mohanty, Programme Lead, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a Delhi-based think-tank, told IndiaSpend. Also needed are micro-level climate risk assessments and impact-based early warning systems that can disseminate the associated hazards to the public, he said. "Cyclones cause multi-hazard events and we have seen that the window of time to respond is small given the rapid intensification of storms. Thus, impact-based early warning systems need to be enhanced," he added.

It is important to incorporate climate science findings into local action plans and to conceptualise climate-resilient infrastructure, said Harjeet Singh, senior advisor, Climate Action Network International. "Are we looking at sea-level rise and cyclone-related impacts? Existing buildings need to be retrofitted based on available scientific data. How are we preparing for sanitation and public health issues that follow due to floods that follow cyclones? Preparing for these impacts is very important, especially at community level," Singh told IndiaSpend.

Mohanty agreed. "Creating community-based adaptive capacities is important and we need a unified response system for that. When the Fukushima disaster struck, everyone knew their role, including citizens. We don't have unified systems at community level," said Mohanty.

Assessing utility of cyclone shelters

In 2013, before cyclone Phailin made landfall in Odisha's Ganjam district, 180,000 people from the district were evacuated. Phailin was then the most intense cyclone to cross the Indian coast since the 1999 Odisha super cyclone.

Even as cyclone shelters play a key role in preventing casualties during storms, the utility and actual use of these structures depended on a variety of factors ranging from structural safety, proximity to vulnerable areas to lack of basic facilities and ownership issues, found this study from December 2020. The study assessed the role shelters of different kinds played during four cyclones--Phailin, Titli, Hudhud and Fani--based on interviews of people who were evacuated prior to the landfall of these storms in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

People did not specifically prefer designated cyclone shelters over public buildings such as schools and colleges that are also used as shelters, the study found. Some of the interviewees who stayed at a cyclone shelter in Chatrapur block of Ganjam district in Odisha during cyclone storm Phailin said that rain water had accumulated in one of the halls and the impact of the storm could be felt in the building.

The study recommended that use of multi-purpose cyclone shelters in areas that are vulnerable to tidal surges should be reviewed. "MPCS' use as public buildings such as school, community centres etc. are useful in its utility beyond cyclone period but it requires to be viable too in providing adequate safety during a cyclonic storm (sic)," the study noted in its conclusion.