“If lightning is the anger of the gods, then the gods are concerned mostly about trees” – this Chinese proverb seemed to have lost its inherent meaning in a rapidly changing climate scenario.
It is not only the trees, but human lives too, become equally vulnerable to natural disasters like lightning and thunderstorm.
In fact, lightning has become a looming threat as it continues to take a heavy toll round the year compared to other major disasters like flood which is seasonal.
While one estimate shows about 6,000 people are killed worldwide by lightning strikes each year, according to National Geographic, the global fatality toll due to lightning is 2,000 annually.
The United States averaged 51 lightning strike fatalities each year in the last 20 years, said NOAA placing it only second to flood-related fatalities.
Lightning kills more people in India than any other natural calamity
Lightning strikes are common during heavy monsoon rains and the data of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) says lightning kills more people in India than any other natural calamity.
According to a 2014 NCRB report, out of 20,201 accidental deaths attributable to natural causes, 12.8 per cent were due to a lightning strike.
At least 2,000 people have died in lightning strikes in India every year since 2005.
The Bureau data also show the average deaths from lightning strikes per million people in 2006-2015 was 26 per cent more than the previous decade.
On July 24, at least 23 people were killed in lightning strikes in the two states of Bihar and Jharkhand in north India, confirmed Police sources.
While 13 people died in Aurangabad, East Champaran and Bhagalpur districts in Bihar, ten people lost their lives in Jamtara, Ramgarh and Pakur districts.
In West Bengal’s Purulia district, three people including two women were killed by lightning strike on August 16 while three others were seriously injured.
Belonging to the farming community, they were working on the open field in the Raghunathpur area.
Lives lost in storms and lightning has surpassed records of all other natural disaster-related deaths in the current year in the state of Assam in Northeast India.
In May, a statement by the Assam Disaster Management Authority revealed that these two natural disasters affected 22,801 families from January to April last and confirming 13 lightning-related deaths till then.
While many of the lightning-related death cases from the remote areas go unreported, media reports confirmed at least 30 deaths from lightning strike in the State in the current year.
In one of the most recent incidents, on September 8 a woman in her forties, Rita Bora died when struck by lightning in the upper Assam district of Jorhat.
On July 27, a 35-year-old man Sagar Rabidas met with his fate while he was working outside his house in the Cachar district.
On July 19, a woman in her thirties, Kabita Konwar died and five others were seriously wounded when struck by lightning when they were working in paddy cultivation in a village near Jagiroad, an hour’s drive from the state capital Guwahati.
On July 7, ten women were seriously wounded as they were plucking tea leaves.
The incident happened in Kushibari Tea Estate in Cachar.
Two days before that on July 5, one Urmila Bodo died on the spot while 12 others were injured when struck by lightning.
The women were working in a paddy field in Dimakuchi, Udalguri-a district along the Indo-Bhutan border.
On June 1, a man Utpal Bangthai from Raha in the Morigaon district also lost his life to lightning.
On March 31, in three separate incidents in separate districts three people including a class VII student died when struck by lightning while three others were seriously wounded.
Most of these people belong to the poorer sections of the society and deaths occurred mostly when they were working in their farms and fields, gathering livestock or plucking tea leaves.
Studies also reveal that most lightning deaths and injuries occur when people are caught outdoors in the summer months during afternoon and evening.
Climate Change behind increasing lightning activities?
The maximum lightning incidents are attributable to climate change in the entire Indian subcontinent.
Although studies on how climate change impacts lightning is inadequate, the basic assumption is that abnormal surface –level heating leads to formation of deep thunderstorm clouds that could lead to more lightning strikes.
Frequent lightning incidents occur in central Bangladesh and the states of Meghalaya, West Bengal, and Assam before the monsoon season (March-May) with 40 lightning strikes per square kilometer.
Less attention in government policies
While flood and flood-related destruction continue to dominate national and state-level disaster management policies, disasters like pre-monsoon storm and lightning activities get less attention in government policies.
While lightning has become a looming threat, lack of awareness and a monitoring network has been costing lives.
Although it is a common phenomenon during thunderstorms, deaths happen because there has been no early detection system.
In Assam, the disaster management authority has taken steps for awareness on Do’s and Don’ts in storm and lightning scenario through electronic media.
However, these media ‘alerts’ hardly reach the people toiling in the fields from dawn to dusk.
Meanwhile, alarmed over the rising number of deaths due to lightning strikes, the Bihar State Disaster Management Authority (BSDMA) has signed an agreement with Bangaluru-based Earth Networks that monitors and collects data on lightning strikes around the world to set up a lightning forecast system in the State.
The Earth Networks system will inform the BSDMA and other related agencies and representatives about the impending lightning strike 30-minutes ahead of its occurrence which in turn would be sent as alerts on a mobile application.
However, no mobile service provider has been selected so far for the job.
To avert lightning–related disasters, ascertaining their locations is very important. In March, the Interdepartmental Climate Research Centre (ICRC) at the Cotton University in Guwahati, Assam has installed a lightning detection system for a better understanding of lightning activities and severe storms over the region.
The system has been developed by the Blitzortung Project based in Germany.
The Project aims at realizing lightning detection for locating electro-magnetic discharges in the atmosphere (lightning discharges) with inexpensive very low frequency receivers based on the time of arrival and time of group arrival method.
The arrival times of the signal are then sent to a central processing server.
Detailed information from several stations and exact positions of discharges are then computed.
Lightning activity is additionally displayed at a website and on public maps in real time.
Mubina Akhtar is an environmental journalist and wildlife activist. She can be reached at: [email protected]