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Tuesday, November 2, 1999 Published at 15:32 GMT

World: South Asia

A history of destruction

A satellite view of the cyclone as it moves into the Orissa coast

By South Asia analyst Alastair Lawson

The cyclone that hit the Indian state of Orissa was not the first storm originating from the Bay of Bengal to have caused untold destruction in India and Bangladesh.

In 1971, an estimated 10,000 people were killed in Orissa in a storm of similar ferocity. In 1977 an equally large number of people were killed in the states of West Bengal, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.

However, the most damaging storm in the area took place in 1970, in which it was estimated that more than a million people died in East Pakistan, before it won its independence and became Bangladesh.

[ image: Left with nothing and dependent on handouts]
Left with nothing and dependent on handouts
It was the most devastating cyclone to hit South Asia in the past 50 years, and the country's entire infrastructure on the south coast was wiped out.

The cyclone and the war of independence that followed it made it even harder for newly-independent Bangladesh to avoid being labelled one of the poorest countries in the world.

Two decades later, in 1991, another big storm hit Bangladesh, killing an estimated 100,000 people.

This time the casualty rate was lower principally because the government - with some help from western aid agencies - had embarked on an extensive programme of cyclone shelter construction which continued until the early 1990s.

Cyclone shelters

Today, even the most remote villages in Bangladesh have access to cyclone shelters, and the authorities are confident that the loss of life will never again be as high as in 1970 and 1991.

[ image:  ]
However, the construction of more cyclone shelters as the focus of the government's cyclone-preparedness strategy is not universally supported.

Some weather experts say that the authorities in India and Bangladesh have neglected other less expensive and more effective means of preparing for the cyclones.

They argue that Delhi and Dhaka should instead embark on a programme of improved coastal embankments, which would not only offset the worst of the storms but would also provide better protection to crops and infrastructure.

They argue that that those who survived the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh by fleeing to cyclone shelters were left with nothing - they were totally dependent on what meagre handouts the government and aid agencies could give them.

They argue that a similar scenario seems to have developed in Orissa, where the infrastructure seems to have been destroyed and where there are reports of food riots.

Andhra example

Even so, the number of people killed in cyclones in India remains far lower than Bangladesh, even though thousands of people have perished in storms there over the last 30 years.

[ image: Infrastructure has been badly affected]
Infrastructure has been badly affected
That is particularly the case in those states which adjoin the Bay of Bengal, and in Gujarat.

Although India, like Bangladesh, has also embarked on an extensive cyclone shelter construction programme, the authorities in Andhra Pradesh have gone further than that.

They have introduced a new system of cyclone warning procedures following a storm in 1996 which killed 2,000 people.

The state government now says it has the capacity to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people in the event of a cyclone.

It has also made it compulsory for fishermen out at sea to carry radios with them so that they can be informed of storm alerts from a sophisticated network of radar located along the coast.

Whether or not these measures make any difference in the event of a sudden cyclone is debatable, but already the people of Orissa are blaming the government for not being sufficiently prepared.

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