Frequent cyclones and tourist evacuations show vulnerabilities at Andamans

In the last two months, Andaman Islands have seen Cyclone Pabuk and Cyclone Phethai, which disrupted the tourism season, forcing officials to carry out large evacuations.
Frequent cyclones and tourist evacuations show vulnerabilities at Andamans
Frequent cyclones and tourist evacuations show vulnerabilities at Andamans
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The recent cyclone that ripped through South Andaman on the evening of January 6 caused minor damages with heavy winds gusting at a speed between 50-70 kmph with lashing rains uprooting trees and damaging power transmission and distribution lines. The Cyclone Pabuk, formed in South China Sea, after creating havoc in Philippines and Thailand had crossed to Andaman Sea on January 5 and the weakened cyclone passed over Port Blair.  It is still lingering in the Andaman Sea, which as per forecast will make landfall in Myanmar.

This is the second cyclone that hit the Islands in the last two months. In December, the Cyclone Pethai had disrupted the peak tourism season and the Andaman Administration had to carry out large evacuation of tourists from Swaraj Dweep (Havelock Island) and Shaheed Dweep (Neil Island), the two popular beach destinations, just a couple of hours away from Port Blair, the capital. Tourists were stranded on the Islands for two days due to rough weather and suspension of shipping schedule. The flight itineraries of the tourists were affected and they were evacuated by Coast Guard and Naval ships and other vessels belonging to Andaman Administration.  

This time, before the Cyclone Pabuk hit the Islands, the government authorities had as a precautionary measure evacuated in advance the tourists from both the Islands before the sea became rough. 

Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which lies in the Bay of Bengal has frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity, and is part of the Pacific "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin. In the year 2018, according to the Indian Meteorological Dept (IMD), the Islands felt 28 earthquakes and shocks of 5M on Richter scale. The volcano on Barren Island is active now. Though, it’s not a plausible threat, but the recent eruption of Anak Krakatau volcano between Sumatra and Jawa in Indonesia, and an undersea landslide, which triggered a tsunami, killed more than 500 people and more than 20000 displaced. Though, there are modes to predict a tsunami triggered by an earthquake, one prompted by volcanic eruption could not be predicted, as it happened in Indonesia recently.

The Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal are breeding grounds of cyclones, that later move to the mainland. However, the notion that ‘seas surrounding the Islands are only a ‘breeding ground’ of a cyclone is far from true. A glance at the records shows that the Islands are visited at intervals by most severe storms. All three types of cyclonic formations – deep depression, cyclonic storm and very severe cyclonic storms have hit the Islands in the last one decade. 

Cyclone ‘Lehar’ had severely damaged roads, and triggered landslides and flood in 2013. It was the second most intense tropical cyclone of the year 2013. The origins of Lehar could be tracked back to an area of low pressure that formed in the South China Sea. The system slowly drifted westwards and entered the Bay of Bengal, where it quickly consolidated into a depression. It moved west-northwest after it had developed into a cyclonic storm and passed over the Islands into the Bay of Bengal. Lehar made its first landfall south of Port Blair early on 25 November 2013. Port Blair received 21.3 cm of rain in 24 hours with wind gusts of 110 km/h. The cyclone disrupted ship sailing schedules, uprooted trees, snapped communication lines, created water-logging, damaged crops and houses, but there were very few human casualties.

The period from October to December, which is the prime tourism season, accounts for 66% of occurrences of cyclones, followed by 27% in the months of April and May. The months of October, November and December are the inter-monsoon period between the Southwest monsoon and the retreating monsoon.

It’s not common that earthquakes or tsunami may disrupt the lives on the Islands; vulnerabilities like cyclone or cyclonic storms need to be accounted for, while tourism development plans are devised. 

Most of the recent projects in the Islands pushed by NITI Aayog are beach-based projects. The three Islands, for which Request For Proposals have already been floated – Aves Island, Smith Island and Long Island – are all on the east coast and prone to cyclones. There is also a proposal to open Little Andaman for tourism, which is 120 km by sea from Port Blair.

On Smith Island, 70 luxury tents and tree houses and related infrastructure are planned. And on Aves Island, 50 luxury tents are planned. 

Moreover, the Andaman and Nicobar Coastal Zone Management Authority (ANCZMA) had recommended amendments in Draft Integrated Island Management Plan (IIMP) to tinker with the Coastal Zone guidelines, and reduce the No Development Zone (NDZ) to 20 metres from High Tide Line (HTL) instead of 60 metres, assuming that it would facilitate better development of the project sites on Aves Island and Smith Island, disregarding the dangers it poised.

On the tourism front, in case of a cyclone, if the preparedness is evacuation of the guests from the beach destinations to Port Blair, the Andaman Administration will have to make more arrangements in the future as more destinations will be added. And in the last couple of years, it has become routine to evacuate tourists, and is widely publicized by the Coast Guard and Navy for their ‘rescue’ preparedness. 

Since 2013, the Islands have witnessed 11 systems including cyclonic storms. As the frequency of cyclones and storms in the tourism season from 2013 have increased, the idea of tree houses so close to the coasts, with winds gusting at the speed between 50 km/h and 100 km/h would only be disastrous. 

With the fragile ecology and increasing storms and cyclones, any development disregarding the vulnerabilities would not be only imprudent, but human casualties cannot be ruled out. Resilience to disasters and preparedness is one thing, but creating environmental catastrophes is something which can be avoided, if some restrains are put in place considering the vulnerabilities. 

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