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Experts say the inadequate response of the government of Myanmar (formerly Burma) to scientists' warnings, coupled with large-scale destruction of protective mangroves along its coasts, aggravated the devastation wreaked by tropical cyclone Nargis.

The cyclone has killed an estimated 22,980 people so far, with millions rendered homeless by the disaster, which struck the Irrawaddy Delta region of Myanmar last week (3 May).

Scientists at the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in New Delhi, the World Meteorological Organisation's specialist centre for Asia, say they issued the first of the cyclone bulletins to Myanmar as early as 26 April. 

Mrityunjay Mohapatra, director of IMD's cyclone-warning centre, told SciDev.Net that Myanmar was warned of the impending cyclone at least 48 hours in advance. But there was no acknowledgement from Myanmar's meteorological office, or any indication of a response.

Mohapatra says IMD's first warning bulletin, issued on 1 May, indicated the land area likely to be hit by the cyclone. It warned that a cyclone with wind speeds of 180 kilometres per hour would cross the southwest coast of Myanmar sometime between 8pm and midnight on the night of the 2 May.

Aftermath of Cyclone Nargis

Burma Partnership

IMD's bulletins contain information on the actual and predicted centre, intensity and movement of the cyclone, as well as sea conditions and maximum wind speeds around the cyclone centre.

Uma Charan Mohanty, from the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre in Thailand, says that, according to the World Meteorological Organisation's data, Asian cyclones are fewer and less intense than hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean or typhoons in the Pacific Ocean region, but they cause more death and destruction. In 2005, 25 hurricanes in the Atlantic caused 10 deaths, but cyclone Sidr, which hit Bangladesh in 2007, left 3,500 dead.

Mohanty says that the Atlantic coast has a good early-warning system and people have the means to drive to safer areas. In contrast, Asian coasts are densely populated, with many poor fishing and farming communities who cannot evacuate on their own, even if they have been warned.

News agencies quote Maung Swe, Myanmar's minister for relief and resettlement, who told a press conference (6 May) that most deaths were caused by a 3.5-metre-high storm surge — a wall of water that develops when cyclonic winds churn up sea water.

Mohanty says that 85 per cent of cyclone deaths are due to storm surges and that predictions of the size and location of such surges are critical in disaster forecasting.

Asian coasts are also becoming increasingly vulnerable because of the loss of protective mangrove forests that serve as windbreaks and limit damage by storm and tidal surges.

In a 2006 report, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said that areas in Sri Lanka with mangrove forests suffered less damage in the 2004 Asian tsunami, compared with regions where forests had been destroyed.

And in January 2008, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned that Asia is fast losing its coastal mangroves, with more than 1.9 million hectares being destroyed each year.

The organisation's report reviewed the world's mangroves between 1980 and 2005. It found that the mangrove forests around Myanmar's Irrawady Delta had degraded because of "overexploitation" and the conversion of land for rice fields — promoted by the government as a way to ensure self-sufficiency in food production.