Science and technology can contribute significantly to mitigating the impact of tropical cyclones.
When Hurricane Ike hit the southeastern US coast in early September, the flooding caused much damage and led to about 50 deaths across ten states. When Cyclone Sidr reached land in the Bay of Bengal last November, as many as 10,000 people are thought to have died.
Both events were of comparable strength. The difference in their impacts has many causes. Some are geographical — the Bay of Bengal's shallow coastal water, high tides and densely populated low-lying areas make cyclones particularly lethal.
But another reason is the countries' varying ability to harness science and technology for disaster mitigation. This applies to accurately predicting when and where such events are likely to occur, delivering credible early warnings to those most likely to be affected, and providing adequate protection for potentially vulnerable communities.
Opening the debate
This week, SciDev.Net presents a set of articles focusing on the nature and impacts of tropical cyclones — powerful storms also called hurricanes or typhoons — in South Asia.
Our intention is to inform policymakers, researchers and international donors about ways of improving cyclone management and open the debate on the issues at hand.
The articles we are publishing discuss how countries can better forecast tropical cyclones, prepare for and adapt to future cyclones and cope with the impacts of extreme events, highlighting lessons learnt from countries like Bangladesh, India and Madagascar.
An introductory background feature by Greg O'Hare, a professor of geography at the UK-based University of Derby, explains how cyclones in South Asia develop, the damage they cause and what can be done to protect vulnerable populations (see Cyclones in the Indian Ocean: Facts and figures).
This is complemented by a feature article by T. V. Padma, SciDev.Net's regional coordinator for South Asia, describing the efforts being made by India to cut deaths in the region through improved storm prediction and research (see India's storming cyclone research).
One of India's top climate researchers, Shishir Dube, of the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, suggests investing in detailed maps of potential cyclone damage to save lives in Indian Ocean countries (see Vulnerability maps could help cut cyclone death tolls).
Addressing similar concerns from a different standpoint, Mark Tadross, a senior research fellow in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, argues that combining statistical and physical models offers the best hope for predicting changes in local cyclone risks in the Indian Ocean (see How best to model local cyclone risk).
Saleemul Huq, head of the climate change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development, warns that preparing for cyclones can save lives, but to save livelihoods nations must also help people adapt to cyclones' impacts (see Countries must prepare for and adapt to cyclone impacts).
A different type of warning comes from Athula Sumathipala,honorary director of the Institute of Research and Development in Sri Lanka, who argues that although disaster research can help future interventions, urgency should never excuse the exploitation of survivors (see Research ethics must still apply in disaster zones).
Finally we provide annotated links to key documents and organisations that address some of the above issues.
The funding gap
Several outstanding concerns have not been addressed directly. For example, how research funds are allocated across the region, and the relative funding priority given to grandiose science projects — such as lunar missions and atomic reactors — compared to cyclone warning systems.
The need for well-funded research into improved predictions, better forecast dissemination, and better protection for individuals and communities, is clear. So is the imperative to ensure that research results are implemented.
We are publishing this set of articles on the International Day for Disaster Reduction. Mitigating against tropical cyclones remains near the top of such efforts. Developed countries have shown that although science and technology cannot prevent natural disasters from happening, they can dramatically reduce their impact in terms of human suffering. The developing world has already achieved much, but needs to do even more to attain the same.