So-called freak weather conditions are, alarmingly, becoming increasingly common
The suffocating dust storm followed by thundershowers that engulfed parts of north and north-west India on Wednesday night left over a 100 people dead, injured more than twice that number, toppled flimsy shelters not to mention some pucca houses, uprooted trees and snapped heavy-duty power lines like twigs was a freak weather condition in many ways. But the danger is that such ‘freak’ occurrences are no longer so rare. And there’s more to come. While dust storms in these parts of India are an annual feature preceding the onset of the monsoon, what was surprising was the scale and intensity of the storm. Six States were the worst-hit with 75 deaths being reported from Uttar Pradesh alone (of which 46 were from Agra) and 36 from Rajasthan. Parts of Punjab and Madhya Pradesh too were severely affected due to winds blowing at speeds of 130 km per hour which created the havoc. Compared to dust storms in, say, the Sahara Desert or Northern China/Beijing where such storms are so intense that tonnes of sand is sucked up and blown across miles, the one witnessed in India was modest. But as we top the league of being the worst country in terms of air pollution, we must prepare for going the Sahara way.
There is emerging evidence that such occurrences are becoming a routine affair and the periodic manner in which they strike are proving exceedingly dangerous to life, limb and property. With the Indian Meteorological Department issuing warnings of yet another dust storm brewing in these areas by Saturday and given climate change results are increasingly being felt by Indians with the poorest of our citizens bearing the brunt, the prognosis for the future is rather depressing. Of course, such climatic events take place due to a combination of complex factors and the wrath of Nature is not under human control.
The present cyclonic circulation arose due to a combination of atmospheric disturbances which were a culmination of moisture levels dipping, temperatures rising and unpredictable wind patterns; all of which provided perfect conditions for high-velocity winds to lift loose soil into the air and carry it thousands of miles. While there is not much that can be done to stop the formation of the ‘bowl’ that stirs up the dust, such storms are for the most part also exacerbated by human errors which include poor agricultural practices, deforestation, pathetic planning and a lack of awareness. And then there’s the luck factor. With rapid advancements in technology and, equally, urbanisation, most big cities are better prepared to handle natural calamities. It is mofussil, small town and rural India, where dwellings and shelters that pass for housing are flimsy in the extreme, which ends up bearing the brunt of such weather conditions. Take Wednesday’ storm — while the IMD launched SMS-based weather alerts they did not get through to those worst affected; and awareness levels outside of big cities among citizens on the steps to take in case of such storms is abysmal. While State Governments were on the whole quick to direct officials to take charge of rehabilitation and offer compensation, that’s just providing temporary relief. We must collectively be better prepared to brace up to a calamity much before it strikes. Emergency responders must be well-equipped and better dwelling units/infrastructure for the poorest will help save lives. Large-scale public awareness and education campaigns on climate change — effects, prevention, and preparedness — are the need of the hour.