Life in the time of tornadoes

Tornado in Bara. Photo: RSS

This is the season for windstorms, and even though the whirlwind that hit the central Tarai on 31 March killing 28 people was a freak event, it was not the first to touch down in our part of the world.

Novelist Amitabh Ghosh begins his 2016 non-fiction book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, with his personal encounter with a funnel-shaped tornado that struck New Delhi on 17 March 1978. It killed 70 and injured 700 in just 2 minutes.

Ghosh writes that the Indian Meterological Service said at the time: ‘This was, in effect, the first tornado to hit Delhi—and indeed the entire region—in recorded meteorological history.’

Birganj-based journalist Chandra Kishore remembers a similar devastating vortex that destroyed parts of his Tarai village in the mid-1980s. In Pheta on the night of 31 March, most of the deaths were due to poorly built structures, not the actual tornado, proving once again that it is shoddily-built houses that kill people not natural events.

When Ghosh encountered the tornado in 1978 in New Delhi, the Earth’s atmosphere had 334ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide. In the 19th century, before the industrial age, it was 280ppm. By 2019, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has increased to 411ppm, most of it because of fossil fuel emissions.

With so much carbon in the atmosphere, climate change is no longer something that will happen in a distant future — it is happening now. Events like the Tarai tornado are our new normal and highlight the growing impacts of an erratic climate and its rising social and economic cost. No country is immune, all countries have to adapt and also cut their emissions by switching to renewable energy.

Read also: Nepal's electric transport future is here, Sonia Awale

Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) collects wind speed data at the airport to assist flight operations, for academic assessment of wind energy potentials and for designing buildings and infrastructure. Wind hazards have always been there, but death and destruction of the scale that Pheta witnessed has not been part of our understanding.

As an under-budgeted and under-staffed entity, the DHM has the lowest priority from the Nepali state, preventing it from becoming a repository of climate knowledge. As one of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, Nepal needs to upgrade its weather forecasting and early warning.

The Pheta tragedy revealed a major gap in the DHM’s ability to ‘nowcast’ weather, the process of warning people about what is likely to happen in the next few hours at a spatial resolution of a few square kilometres. The department needs to be able to provide local, short-term forecasting, perhaps by collaborating with others like Tribhuvan University’s Physics Department.

The twister also exposed gaps in our disaster management institutions. Nepal’s 2017 Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act has replaced the 1982 Natural Calamity Relief Act, so there are now 15 legal tools and guidelines covering the entire disaster cycle. However, these have not been contextualised for our local situation, where the understanding of national policies and laws is still limited.

The Ministry of Home Affairs held a meeting of the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Committee on 5 April, chaired by the Home Affairs Minister himself. It issued a 13-point decision to expedite relief and increase preparedness for the coming monsoon season.

Province 2 has also taken a number of decisions including one to build prefabricated houses for the Pheta victims within four months. The government in Kathmandu, however, decided to assign the Nepal Army to rebuild the damaged houses. The army played a commendable role in rescue and relief efforts during the 2015 earthquake and in other disasters, but it is worth asking why it needs to be involved in reconstruction of private homes.

The Nepal Army is there to defend our borders and be the first responder in a disaster; building houses is not its job. Reconstruction requires working iteratively with local governments to support victims in self-recovery and building back safer without reproducing past vulnerabilities. The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) already has a track record of helping earthquake-affected families build houses, and it could have easily been assigned that responsibility in Pheta.

Such complex institutional dynamics often create more constraints than solutions, at a time when there are new challenges due to climate change-induced disasters. Nepal’s national, provincial and local governments, and society by and large, do not have the necessary wherewithal to adapt and are the least prepared. The poor are the most vulnerable, and as Pheta proved, are likely going to pay the highest price.

Ajaya Dixit is Executive Director of Kathmandu based ISET-Nepal. His monthly column Climate for Change deals with the impact of global warming in Nepal.

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