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As Cyclone Tauktae hurtled toward India’s west coast on May 17, a grim scenario outlined in Amitav Ghosh’s eloquent meditation on climate change, The Great Derangement, suddenly loomed as a distinct possibility. A direct hit on the megapolis of Mumbai, India’s financial capital, Ghosh wrote, could wreak damage far greater than the city’s monster flood of 2005. To the prospect of massive flooding and failure of essential services, Ghosh added the spectacle of corrugated iron roofs from the city’s teeming informal settlements turning into deadly projectiles slamming into its upscale glass towers, and major radioactive leakage in the city’s decades-old nuclear complex. The scenario is only too realistic, and may presage frequent complex emergency moments in South Asia, in which multiple risks (ranging from climate change to health, geopolitics, and governance) converge in a positive feedback loop, creating extensive dislocation and damage to large human populations.
The Arabian Sea, on the coast of which Mumbai is located, has historically seen far less cyclonic activity than the more turbulent Bay of Bengal to its east. Bangladesh and the Indian states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, for example, are no strangers to major storms and attendant evacuation of tens of millions of people – with a potential new cyclone brewing even at the time of writing. But the Arabian Sea’s major urban agglomerations in South Asia – Mumbai and Karachi – but also Goa, Kochi, Mangalore and others, have generally had an easy ride, with Mumbai not seeing a serious cyclone in its vicinity in four decades.(more…)