For deep-sea fishermen Charlene Lenis, Jerome Beji and their crew of 10, knowing when a cyclone is approaching can mean the difference between life and death.
As Cyclone Tauktae approached fishing areas off the south coast of India in 2021, India’s Meteorological Agency sent out a message about the major storm. The fishermen were at sea for two days and returned to port immediately after receiving the satellite phone alert.
“We are gill net fishermen and always travel as a boat party. At least one boat will have a satellite phone,” said Lenis, who mostly catches tuna, sharks and other big fish.
The India Meteorological Department and the state of Kerala have been upgrading cyclone warning infrastructure since Cyclone Ockhi in 2017 killed 245 fishermen at sea. Just a year later, unprecedented flooding cost the southwestern state of Kerala billions of dollars in damage, including in its largest city, Kochi.
It is becoming increasingly important for India to warn people about extreme weather disasters – it is becoming the world’s most populous country and one of the most vulnerable to climate change.
On a recent visit to India, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the World Meteorological Organization will invest $3.1 billion to set up early warning systems around the world. According to the WMO, almost half of the countries in the world – most of them low-income countries and small island states – do not have early warning systems.
“Countries with limited early warning coverage have eight times higher disaster mortality than countries with high coverage,” Guterres said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a series produced under the India Climate Journalism Program, a collaboration between The Associated Press, the Stanley Center for Peace and Security and the Press Trust of India.
Elongated like a bitter gourd and sprawling across south-west India, the state of Kerala nestles between the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats Mountains and the Arabian Sea. The state is also one of the regions most affected by climate change and is increasingly confronted with extreme weather events from year to year, be it hurricanes, floods or heat.
The state also has a special position from a meteorological point of view. The arrival of the annual monsoon, vital to India’s economy and agriculture, is only announced on the subcontinent after the rains land in Kerala, usually in June.
“Kerala is experiencing an increase in extreme weather events and should be fully prepared,” said Madhavan Rajeevan, a former secretary of India’s Ministry of Geosciences.
Rajeevan was among the senior officials in charge when weather disasters such as Cyclone Ockhi and the 2018 floods hit Kerala. “Although things are better, there is still a lot of room for improvement,” he said. “It’s important to ramp up communications systems so that information reaches the people who need it most. For example fishermen.”
IMD’s Cyclone Warning Division at its New Delhi headquarters is the beating heart of Indian cyclone forecasting. The department receives data from satellites, local bureaus, Doppler radars, and associated agencies such as the National Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting and the National Center for Ocean Information Services.
When a storm approaches, the division resembles an emergency response command center, with scientists working around the clock to monitor and relay information to regions likely to be affected.
Because of this information, thousands of people are being moved to safer ground and fishermen are being called back from the sea or prevented from going out. Since its inception over two decades ago, the division has been instrumental in saving countless Native American lives from extreme weather conditions.
“If there is a cyclone, a bulletin will be issued eight times a day with warnings to fishermen, ports and coastal weather reports,” said IMD chief Mrutyunjay Mohapatra.
Mohapatra earned the nickname “Cyclone Man of India” after accurately predicting the path of powerful Cyclone Phailin, which struck the coast of Odisha in eastern India in 2013. “We’ve also increased the frequency of alerts, making sure the information gets to fishermen and others who need it as quickly as possible,” he added.
Despite the efforts of the weather agency, deadly extreme weather is increasing in India. According to a 2022 IMD report, more than 2,000 people died in the country from extreme weather events. Another report found that 2022 was one of the warmest years for Kerala on record. According to the Kerala government’s Institute for Climate Change Studies, the state lost 56 lives last year due to extreme weather conditions.
To reduce damage from extreme weather, the Federal Forecasting Agency established a separate cyclone warning center in Kerala in 2018. This not only serves Kerala but also the nearby state of Karnataka and the island of Lakshadweep in the Indian Ocean. India now has seven weather alert centers.
The Kerala government, which faced flak over its handling of Cyclone Okchi and the devastating floods in 2018, also subscribes to private weather companies such as Skymet Weather, which provide additional forecasts. It is one of the first states in India to subscribe to private weather services.
A UN report estimates the 2018 floods caused $4.4 billion in damage in the state, and officials said Kerala needs that much to recover.
NK Premachandran, who represents a Kerala constituency in India’s parliament, said that despite claims by states and the federal government, information about extreme weather still does not reach people soon enough.
“There has been some improvement after the 2017 cyclone and 2018 floods, but it’s not enough,” Premachandran said. ”
Premachandran, who is a member of a state opposition party, said the government had failed to warn of rain-triggered landslides in 2020 and 2021 in the state’s mountainous regions.
Regardless of such shortcomings, fishermen venturing out to sea off Kerala’s shores welcome the state’s extreme weather warnings.
“Rising fuel costs, declining fish numbers and an increasing number of boats are making fishing difficult,” said Lenis, the fisherman whose crew returned to port in 2021 after receiving the storm warning.
Despite the risks, Lenis, who is a captain and has been fishing for 35 years, says he plans to move on and these warnings give him and others a little bit more reassurance.
“With these systems, we at least make sure that we don’t risk our lives as much as we used to when we go to sea,” he said. “Our families have a little more confidence that if we go to sea we will most likely return home safely.”