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Shelter for Man and Beast: Can India's Cyclone Refuges Protect All?


FILE - A man stands in front of a damaged house after Cyclone Phailin hit Gopalpur village, in Ganjam district in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, Oct. 14, 2013.

When forecasters predict a cyclone is about to blast into India's coastal state of Odisha, livestock owners face several bad choices.

They can stay at home to protect their animals, risking their own lives, or leave their livestock behind and flee to storm shelters, risking livestock losses from wild weather or thefts.

They also have a third option: bringing their animals along to shelters built to accommodate both people and beasts — though that is proving difficult to make work in practice, according to livestock owners and experts who have studied or worked with the shelters.

Odisha abuts the Bay of Bengal from where, in 1999, a super cyclone battered the state with 250 kilometer-per-hour (155 mile-per-hour) winds and drowned land many kilometers from shore.

Around 10,000 people died, along with 316,000 cattle and 1.8 million poultry, according to government statistics.

In response, the state created the Odisha Disaster Management Authority which, with help from organizations such as the Indian Red Cross Society, has built more than 200 cyclone shelters across six coastal districts, according to its website.

These are designed to accommodate livestock as well, according to Krushna Chandra Bisoi, the authority's shelter coordinator.

Odisha's history of cyclones has made it one of the most disaster-prepared states in India, according to Mahesh Chander, an expert in livestock disaster management at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute.

After Cyclone Phailin swept through Odisha in 2013, Margareta Wahlström, then head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, said the state's handling of the storm was a "landmark success."

But in practice, sheltering animals as well as people from storms remains a challenge.

The cyclone shelter in Bentapur, a village of around 2,500 people outside the state capital of Bhubaneswar, for instance, can fit around 200 animals, according to Ramakanta Behera, who lives there and raises livestock.

But that's not enough space for the village's many cattle, buffalo, goats, sheep, and chickens - and there is no food or water stocked for the animals, who must remain on the exposed ground floor, he said.

In nearby Ramachandrapur, a village of about the same size, an aging two-story pastel pink shelter stands between a school and a local government office and faces similar limitations.

It is big enough to protect several dozen people and — in a squeeze — just 15 cattle, according to Debabrat Patra, a regional manager with ActionAid, a nonprofit that has experimented with and advocated for larger three-story shelters.

The government-built shelter in Ramachandrapur has a partially closed upper floor for people and an open ground floor that can be used for livestock.

This design can leave animals vulnerable to flooding and high winds even inside the shelter, said Saudamini Das, a climate change adaptation expert at the Institute of Economic Growth in New Delhi.

Questions about whether animals will find room in the shelter — and whether they will be safe there — can be a disincentive to use the facilities, livestock owners said.

Pramod Kumar Patra, who keeps animals in Bentapur, said in his view shelters were constructed with animals as an afterthought — and if livestock die, their owners are left without their main source of income.

Gajender Sharma, the India country director for World Animal Protection, noted that "people always get priority, and so animals don't get a space even though it's designated for them. That often happens."

The risks, which are likely to grow as climate change brings wilder weather, were evident last year in India's southern state of Kerala, where a massive flood killed more than 480 people.

Around 46,000 livestock and 2.5 million poultry also perished, according to a World Animal Protection report citing government figures.

Without shelters designed for livestock, people clustered with cattle and buffalo on overpasses, Rahul Sehgal, a senior director at Humane Society International who worked in Kerala after the flood, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

Compensation

Another problem facing storm-prone states such as Odisha is how to compensate farmers who lose livestock in disasters.

According to a 2017 state disaster management plan, each farming household can receive about $430 for a full-grown cow or buffalo, $360 for a horse, and about $43 for a sheep, goat or pig — up to a limit of three cows or 30 goats, sheep or pigs.

A large flock of chickens or ducks can bring up to 5,000 rupees ($72).

The regulations seem straightforward, but counting livestock after a disaster is nearly impossible, said Dipak Beura, a district training coordinator at the Odisha Fisheries and Animal Resources Development Department.

Some owners stuff goats, sheep or chickens into small, illegal structures, and don't accurately report how many animals they own even in normal conditions, he said.

When an inspector knocks after a storm, people tend to exaggerate about lost livestock, he added.

"We face a lot of difficulties during that time," Beura said.

When a disaster happens years after the most recent nationwide livestock census — last done in 2012 and being conducted again in 2019 — livestock records reflect only the animals owned at the time of the survey, said Hrushiksh Pattasani, a state livestock inspector for almost 30 years.

Sharma, of World Animal Protection, said local governments should conduct door-to-door animal surveys every six to 12 months to more accurately track losses from disasters.

But the animal resources department is already struggling to staff livestock inspectors.

A 2013 department disaster management report describes the position as of "paramount importance" to disaster management.

But a 2017-2018 activity report from the department noted that 1,453 of the state's 3,330 livestock inspector positions were vacant at the end of 2017 - nearly 44 percent.

Recruitment has declined drastically since 2006 because of a lack of state funding Beura said. Newly hired inspectors are also no longer eligible for a pension.

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