The Sundarbans reduced the wind speed of Cyclone Bulbul by 20 kilometres an hour and – at its own expense – saved the rest of southern Bengal from the fury of the storm.

The cyclone that had formed in the Bay of Bengal hit the Sundarbans coast late in the evening of November 9 with winds gusting up to a speed of 130 kilometres per hour. But as it moved parallel to the coast – eastwards towards Bangladesh – the world’s largest mangrove forest impeded the wind, proving yet again the importance of mangroves in safeguarding coasts from storms that are becoming increasingly more frequent and more severe due to climate change.

The Sundarbans did have one natural ally this time – it was low tide when the cyclone made landfall. So, the wave heights were significantly lower than they had been during the 2009 Cyclone Aila. The landfall of the earlier cyclone during high tide had meant the destruction of many more embankments in 2009, though the maximum wind speed at that time had been lower than with Cyclone Bulbul. “Sundarbans has been partially saved during Bulbul as high tide did not coincide with the cyclone like what happened during Aila, which had made it far more dangerous,” opined river expert and chairman of West Bengal Pollution Control Board Kalyan Rudra.

The November 9 cyclone was ferocious enough to overturn a large fishing trawler near Ganga Sagar, the mouth of the Ganga. One fisherman was crushed beneath the overturned vessel. Eight more are still missing. On land in West Bengal, ten persons were killed by falling huts and falling trees. The initial death count in Bangladesh is also ten, mostly in Satkhira, the district that borders India’s West Bengal state within the Sundarbans.

Authorities in West Bengal and Bangladesh evacuated nearly two million people from the possible path of the storm and minimised human deaths. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) provided hourly forecasts on the path and intensity of the storm on the day of the landfall, enabling the authorities in both countries to plan the evacuation. For three days before that, it provided the same information every six hours, earning praise from scientists around the world for the accuracy of its forecasts.

The Bangladesh government moved around 1.8 million people to cyclone shelters in 14 coastal districts. It sent troops to Satkhira to help in rescue operations and shut down Chittagong airport for 14 hours. In West Bengal, Kolkata airport was shut down for eight hours.

G.K. Das, director of IMD’s regional office in Kolkata, pointed out another reason why the damage to the area beyond the Sundarbans was less during Bulbul than during Aila – the current cyclone moved from west to east parallel to the coast, through the mangrove forest. In contrast, Aila had moved northwards, crossing the Sundarbans relatively quickly.

The long-term hit

So, the Sundarbans took the biggest hit this time, and about half a million people who live there – mostly in West Bengal – have lost their standing crop to Cyclone Bulbul. In recent years, governments in both India and Bangladesh have proved far better in minimising human casualties from cyclone than in rehabilitation of people who go back to fallen homes, ruined farms and ponds. They effectively lose their sources of livelihood.

This has led to large scale migration out of the Sundarbans – to Dhaka, Khulna, Chittagong, Jessore and other cities in Bangladesh; and to all over India, with Kerala being the favourite destination.

As with earlier storms, the islands on the southern fringe of the Sundarbans – facing the Bay of Bengal – took the brunt of Cyclone Bulbul. In Mousuni, a large island that has already lost entire neighbourhoods to a rising sea – another effect of climate change – a majority of huts were destroyed. Initial reports indicated the same situation in Sagar Island at the mouth of the Ganga.

“Mousuni has been completely devastated with most of the mud houses and even the houses with tiles or asbestos roofs seriously damaged. Trees have been uprooted everywhere, electricity connection is gone and many people are still in flood shelters,” resident of the island Sheikh Adalat said over the phone on Monday, more than 36 hours after the storm had passed.

“Though we are yet to get the full figure, primary assessment says about 10,000 mud houses have been damaged in Sagar Island and another 3,000 in adjoining islands,” said Bankim Hazra, who represents the constituency in the West Bengal assembly and chairs the Ganga Sagar Bakkhali Development Authority. A wall being built to guard a part of the island from the rising sea has been destroyed.

A wall being built to safeguard a part of Sagar Island from the rising sea was destroyed by Cyclone Bulbul [image courtesy: local resident]

The Sundarbans is a tidal forest, so thousands of embankments have been built to keep brackish water from invading farms, ponds and homes. A very large number had been destroyed in Cyclone Aila. Initial reports say one embankment has been broken by Cyclone Bulbul in West Bengal, but many more in Bangladesh. Local media in Bangladesh reported damage to 500 km of embankments in Satkhira, Bagerhat and Khulna districts.

“Bulbul has definitely caused widespread damage to Sundarbans, second only to Aila about ten years back,” Manturam Pakhira, Sundarbans affairs minister in the West Bengal government, told thethirdpole.net. “With preparation and shifting of people from vulnerable points, we could save the loss of human lives but damage to kancha (mud) and semi pucca (brick houses with tile, tin or asbestos roofs) houses as well as in agriculture has been enormous. We are still in process of assessing the damage.”

The cyclone left a swathe of damage through the forest as it barrelled eastwards. Sundarbans expert and oceanographer from Jadavpur University Sugata Hazra said, “I am told that a major portion of Gosaba (over 100 km from the landfall area) has been affected with lots of trees fallen and mud houses damaged.”

Jayanta Naskar, who represents the Gosaba constituency in the West Bengal assembly, said almost all the area till Kumirmari at the Bangladesh border was severely affected. “Even my house was partially damaged.”

Similar reports came from Satkhira and adjoining areas in Bangladesh – of thousands of houses damaged and trees uprooted. Power lines were snapped and roads blocked by fallen trees. On Monday afternoon, Bangladesh Army, Fire Service and Civil Defence departments were still working to restore communications. The country’s forest department has banned tourists from visiting the Sundarbans while it assesses the damage.

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