Cyclone Nargis

Imagine having a strong cyclone heading your way and being unprepared because the warnings came too late and did not provide enough information about the storm's intensity. Imagine you hear the warnings but don't know how to interpret them. Think about the cyclone's winds literally blowing your house away. Imagine holding on to a tree for dear life, for many hours in a storm, hoping the winds do not blow you away like they did your house. Luckily, you survived the storm, but you're now homeless and can't find your family members. These are just some real-life scenarios which have become synonymous with 2008's Cyclone Nargis. 

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Table of contents

    Cyclone Nargis case study

    Cyclone Nargis was the first named storm of the 2008 cyclone season in the North Indian Ocean. It was one of the deadliest tropical cyclones ever recorded, and it has been compared to Hurricane Katrina in the United States. However, as you will go on to learn, it was far more deadly. Cyclone Nargis affected Myanmar (formally Burma) and resulted in the worst natural disaster in the country's history.

    Myanmar's name was changed from Burma by the government in 1989. However, technically, this change only applies in English because the word Myanmar is just a more formal way of saying Burma.

    Cyclone Nargis location

    Cyclone Nargis formed as a depression on 27 April 2008 in the Bay of Bengal about 466 miles/750 km south-east of the city of Chennai (formerly Madras) in India. At first, the storm tracked to the northwest and was expected to make landfall in India. However, on May 1st, Nargis turned and began to track towards the northeast because of the presence of a mid-latitude trough towards its northwest.

    On this new track, it was initially projected to hit either Bangladesh or the mountainous, north-western part of Myanmar. Instead, it headed more or less due east and made landfall along Myanmar's southern and eastern coasts. Cyclone Nargis dissipated on 3 May 2008 at the Myanmar/Thailand border. Figure 1 shows its track.

    Cyclone Nargis Cyclone Nargis location storm track, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Cyclone Nargis' route

    Cyclones in this part of the Indian Ocean typically track towards the northwest or north-north-west.

    Cyclone Nargis facts

    In the following sections, we will examine some facts about Cyclone Nargis.

    Cyclone Nargis' strength and category

    After its formation, Cyclone Nargis was upgraded to a category 1 cyclone (according to the Saffir-Simpson scale) on 28 April. It further strengthened into a category 2 cyclone on 29 April. Later that same day, Nargis lost some strength and was downgraded to storm status. On 1 May, along with the storm's sudden turn towards the east, there was also a rapid intensification. By 1 May, the storm was a category 4 with maximum sustained winds of 135 mph/217 km/hr. It made landfall in Myanmar at this strength and battered the country until 3 May.

    Cyclone Nargis - affected areas

    Cyclone Nargis hit the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta, including south Yangon. Yangon is Myanmar's largest city and its leading commercial centre. The fact that the cyclone largely stayed along the coast prevented it from weakening as it made its way across southern Myanmar (the storm was still being fuelled by the warm waters). It affected about 50 townships, and the areas that experienced the worst impact were Labutta, Bogale, Pyapon, Dedaye and Kyaiklat. Figure 2 shows the areas which were affected by the storm.

    Cyclone Nargis, affected areas, StudySmarterFig. 2 - areas affected by Cyclone Nargis

    Cyclone Nargis impacts

    The combination of heavy rains, high winds and the storm surge resulted in Cyclone Nargis devastating southern Myanmar and, as stated previously, becoming the worst natural disaster in the country's history. In fact, Nargis is often regarded as one of the worst natural disasters globally since 1970! A large proportion of the destruction resulted from its storm surge, estimated to have been over 16ft/5m in some areas and affected places up to 25 miles/40 km inland.

    The impacts of the storm were amplified by the fact Myanmar already has relatively high levels of environmental degradation, including deforestation of mangroves, over-exploitation of natural resources and soil erosion.

    Cyclone Nargis' economic impacts

    Overall, it was estimated that Cyclone Nargis caused about USD $10 billion in damages, the equivalent of £8.3 billion today (July 2022). Approximately 65% of the rice paddy fields were destroyed (figure 3), which caused food security problems not only within the country but also in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, both of which depend on rice exports from Myanmar to feed their populations. The shrimping industry was also significantly damaged.

    Rice is vital in Myanmar. When the country was part of the British Empire, it was known as the "rice bowl" because of how well rice grew in the Irrawaddy Delta. Rice accounts for about 66% of the daily caloric intake of the country's population and is also exported to other countries.

    Cyclone Nargis economic impacts rice paddies flooded StudySmarterFig. 3 - rice paddies flooded as a result of Cyclone Nargis

    Cyclone Nargis' environmental impacts

    Cyclone Nargis destroyed approximately 38,000 hectares (93,000 acres) of mangroves and other tree crops. There was contamination of surface and groundwater supplies, and 43% of the freshwater ponds were damaged. Additionally, the storm caused sedimentation in rivers, salination and erosion of agricultural land.

    Cyclone Nargis' social impacts

    The storm severely impacted about 1.5 million people. In the aftermath of the cyclone, the water supply contamination caused a potable water shortage. There were also food shortages and no electricity or phone lines as the storm had downed many utility poles. Furthermore, 95% of the buildings, including homes, in the delta were destroyed, while 75% of the health facilities in affected areas were either significantly damaged or destroyed. The damage to homes left many persons homeless. The storm killed numerous animals, and there was an increase in some diseases because of stagnant water and improper sanitation (figure 4).

    Cyclone Nargis Social impacts standing water StudySmarterFigure 4: Standing water still prevalent weeks after the passage of Cyclone Nargis

    Cyclone Nargis death

    The death toll attributed to Cyclone Nargis is approximately 140,000, with many others still reported as missing since their bodies have never been recovered. This makes Nargis one of the top 10 deadliest tropical cyclones in history.

    The deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded was the Great Bhola Cyclone, which hit Bangladesh in November 1970. The death toll from this storm is estimated to be between 300,000 and 500,000.

    Reasons for the high death toll

    The high death toll was a result of a combination of factors. The storm made landfall in the most heavily populated part of the country. Myanmar did not have a reliable storm warning system in place, and although India did send warnings about its approach, many received the warnings too late. They did not understand that they should have evacuated. The storm surge, which was responsible for a vast proportion of the deaths, easily made its way inland as many of the mangroves, which could have provided some protection, had been destroyed. Many of the dwellings in the region were also poorly constructed and, therefore, easily washed away.

    Cyclone Nargis aftermath

    In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the government of Myanmar initially barred international aid from entering the country. This may likely have contributed to increasing the death toll. When aid was finally allowed to enter about a week later, it was limited by the government to food, medicine, basic medical supplies and financial aid. At this time, no foreign aid workers were allowed to enter the country. After weeks of negotiations, vast amounts of foreign relief and workers were granted access towards the end of May. Table 1 outlines some (not all!) of the aid provided to Myanmar in the aftermath of Nargis.

    Country/OrganizationAid/Relief Sent
    BangladeshEmergency aidAid workers
    Indian NavyTentsBlanketsMedicines
    United KingdomUSD $33.5 million
    United States of AmericaUSD $41 millionHelp from American Red Cross
    BrazilRoofing materialsTentsFirst aid supplies
    AustraliaUSD $23.5 million31 tonnes of supplies
    Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)Damage assessment team30 medical personnel per member country
    World Food Programme (WFP)Food for over 1 million cyclone survivors for at least a year

    Table 1: Aid provided to Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis

    Cyclone Nargis Aftermath Australian supplies StudySmarterFig. 5 - supplies sent from Australia arriving in Myanmar in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis

    Cyclone Nargis - Key takeaways

    • Cyclone Nargis was a category 4 storm which hit southern Myanmar on 2 May and 3 May 2008.
    • It affected about 50 townships in the Irrawaddy Delta.
    • Cyclone Nargis caused the worst natural disaster in Myanmar's history, killing 140,000 and resulting in about USD $10 billion in damages (the equivalent of £8.3 billion in today's money - July 2022)
    • In its aftermath, the government initially did not allow international aid into the country.
    • When it was eventually allowed, international aid was sent by many countries and organizations.


    1. Fig. 2 : Areas affected by Cyclone Nargis ( by Robert A Rohde ( licensed by Commons: GNU Free Documentation License (,_version_1.2)
    2. Fig. 3: Flood rice paddies ( by Neryl Lewis, RRT ( licensed by CC BY 2.0 (
    3. Fig. 4: Standing water after Cyclone Nargis ( by Neryl Lewis RRT ( licensed by CC BY 2.0 (
    4. Fig. 5: Australian aid after Cyclone Nargis (,_2008._Photo-_AusAID_(10673729926).jpg) by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade ( licensed by CC BY 2.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Cyclone Nargis

    Which countries did Cyclone Nargis affect? 

    Cyclone Nargis affected Myanmar. 

    How did cyclone Nargis affect Myanmar? 

    Cyclone Nargis caused approximately USD $10 billion in damage. It destroyed Myanmar's rice and shrimping industry. It also destroyed buildings, mangroves and other crops, contaminated water sources, and downed utility lines. Many persons were left homeless, animals were killed, and there was a rise in some diseases.  

    How many people did Cyclone Nargis kill?

    Cyclone Nargis killed 140,000 people.

    Why was Cyclone Nargis so deadly? 

    Cyclone Nargis was so deadly because it hit the most highly populated areas of Myanmar, where the people were largely unprepared. The population of this area also largely lived in poorly constructed homes which were not protected due to mangrove destruction and therefore were easily washed away by the storm surge. 

    How long did Cyclone Nargis last?

    Cyclone Nargis formed on 27 April 2008 and dissipated on 3 May 2008. It affected Myanmar on 2 and 3 May 2008. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False:Cyclone Nargis made landfall in Myanmar as a category 1 storm.

    True or False:Cyclone Nargis' storm surge affected areas up to 40 km/25 miles inland.

    What was the total value of the damages caused by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar?


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