Over recent days, the people of southern Oman have been preparing for the worst. Cyclone Chapala threatened the city of Salalah and the surrounding area of Dhofar with 200kph winds, the promise of up to eight years’ worth of rainfall in one day and the likelihood of devastating floods.
The Indian Ocean sees the development of cyclones every year, but most of them do not make landfall. When they do, it is often on the west coast of India or on the Pakistani coast. The majority cause limited damage, but some have been devastating. It is rare, however, for Indian Ocean cyclones to travel so far west, or so far south.
So when it seemed likely that Cyclone Chapala was likely to hit Dhofar, the emergency services rightly went into crisis mode. Fishermen were warned to stay out of the water and avoid the expected eight-metre swells. Aviation authorities made plans to both divert flights away from the path of the storm and deliver aid after the event. Coastal communities were evacuated and householders battened down the hatches.
And then the people of southern Oman waited. And waited. While they did so, the cyclone’s trajectory took a left turn, heading further south towards the coast of Oman’s neighbour, strife-torn Yemen.
Because of the ongoing conflict, decades of instability, inadequate national infrastructure and total lack of emergency planning, Yemen was unable to take the sort of precautions that Oman already had in place. Even weather reporting is a shadow of what can be found across most of the rest of the globe. Yemen has eight official synoptic weather observation sites, each of which should report weather conditions at least once every six hours. But in October, six of Yemen’s weather stations sent no reports at all, one site sent just one observation, and the other managed just 13 of its 124 required reports.
The contrast between the preparations taken by Oman and Yemen could not be more stark. Oman’s combination of advance warnings with practical measures and support meant that the impact of Cyclone Chapala could be minimised and people could be confident of getting the help they needed, when they needed it. In the Yemen, on the other hand, the people expected no advance support. And that is pretty much what they got.
It is a vivid illustration of the gulf in emergency planning, preparedness and response that can be seen between the poorest nations and more affluent ones. Even if the ongoing conflict allowed it, the Yemeni government would not be able to provide the kind of response its wealthier neighbours in Oman have planned.
Which means that the international community needs to step in. Providing the food, water, shelter and lighting that Cyclone Chapala’s victims need will be a complex and time-consuming task. NGOs already working in Yemen, and governments such as those of Oman and the UAE, have responded quickly. But, tragically, it is likely to reach some people too late.
But when thousands of lives are at stake, it is not enough for the international community to say, “There’s a limit to what we can do”. Rapid response and massive provision of supplies, with appropriate levels of security back-up, are what those in crisis-hit, poverty stricken countries like Yemen need. And it is what we should be prepared – in every sense of the word – to deliver.