In India, disaster preparedness still has a long way to go

Keeping environment risks in mind, involving locals in decision-making is the key to sustainable development in vulnerable areas.

 |  6-minute read |   14-10-2017
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In 1989, the United Nations General Assembly designated October 13 as the International Day for Disaster Reduction, to promote a global culture of risk awareness that included disaster prevention, mitigation, and preparedness.

Globally, during the last 20 years (1996-2016), the occurrence of geophysical disasters (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, rock fall, tsunamis, and mass movements) has remained mostly unvarying, although a constant increase in climate-related events — hydrological, meteorological and climatological — has pushed the total number of disasters considerably higher.

Since the start of this century, an average of around 341 climate-induced disasters per annum have been recorded — this is around twice the level in 1980-1989.

In 2014, around 48 per cent natural disasters occurred in Asia alone. Globally, 86 per cent of those affected and over 85 per cent of those killed by disasters were also in Asia.

According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), among the first five of the most disaster-affected countries in 2015, India ranked third, after China and the United States, having suffered 19 natural disasters in 2015 with around 2,800 deaths and economic loss of over Rs 22,000 crore .

India is vulnerable to many natural disasters due to geological hazard susceptibility in various zones. Added to it are factors such as high population density, poor socio-economic conditions, unplanned growth and development in high-risk areas, as well as environmental degradation and implications of climate change. As many natural disasters take place suddenly, their prevention has become more diificult and complicated.

A great part of the high-risk Himalayan zone is characterised by a low economic development rate. Photo: Reuters/FileA great part of the high-risk Himalayan zone is characterised by a low economic development rate. Photo: Reuters/File

The most disastrous natural calamity that struck India in over 15 years was the Uttarakhand flash flood of 2013. It was a catastrophic natural disaster; the official death toll was estimated to be around 5,700. These flash floods are considered the most disastrous floods in the history of India. The state economy, majorly dependent on the tourism sector, collapsed, thousands of people perished, and lakhs lost their employment.

The line between natural and man-made disasters is blurring. At a time when socio-economic development is happening in the world at a fast pace, there is no authority to deal with all aspects holistically.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction was adopted at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan in March 2015. In 2016, the UN secretary-general launched the “The Sendai Seven Campaign” to promote each of the seven targets over seven years (2016-2022).

The Sendai Seven Campaign is an opportunity for governments, local governments, UN agencies and all other stakeholders to promote and advertise the best practices to reduce disaster risk and losses at international, regional and national level across all sectors.

The successful implementation of the Sendai Framework is critical to the achievement of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, notably the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

The target for 2027 is focused on substantially reducing the number of people affected globally by 2030, aiming to lower the average global figure per 100,000 in the decade 2020- 2030 compared to the period 2005-2015.

The Himalayas has the youngest chain of mountains in the world, formed by the movement of Indian sub-continent plate against the Asian plate, an ongoing process. This process creates enormous pressure, which releases in the form of earthquakes or seismic vibrations.

About 40 million individuals live in the Himalayan region. A great part of the Himalayan zone is characterised by a low economic development rate consolidated with a high rate of population growth. This makes the Indian states prone to calamities such as landslides, flash floods, streak surges, forest fires, and seismic tremors.

The question that arises is when climate change seems inevitable, and the risk of occurrence of a natural disaster is increasing, how prepared and sustainable are we?

On June 1, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released India’s first-ever National Disaster Management Plan. The plan is based on the four priority themes of the Sendai Framework, namely: understanding disaster risk, improving disaster risk governance, investing in disaster risk reduction (through structural and non-structural measures) and disaster preparedness, early warning and building back in the aftermath of a disaster.

But India has miles to go if the vision of the plan, to “make India disaster resilient”, has to become a reality. There are several glitches in the National Disaster Management Plan, which has attracted criticism from the Supreme Court, the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament and the Comptroller and Auditor General.  

Therefore, to support the implementation of the plan, a clear and practical roadmap is required, with clear targets, timeline, and ideas about how resources shall be mobilised with a framework for monitoring and evaluation.

“Home Safe Home” is the slogan for International Day for Disaster Reduction in 2017. Building and strengthening resilience through integrated risk management is a key to breaking the vicious circle of poverty, risk and vulnerability.

In Himalayan states, it is necessary to consider enhancing the resilience of the community with a very strong component of disaster risk reduction and development planning. Therefore, efforts should be made so that both who contribute and those who receive revenue for building back infrastructure must not create risks by rebuilding disaster-hit structures at unsafe locations.

Poor, unsustainable infrastructure building saw Uttarakhand flooding again lasy year, after the 2013 tragedy. Photo: India TodayPoor, unsustainable infrastructure building saw Uttarakhand flooding again lasy year, after the 2013 tragedy. Photo: India Today

Care must be taken so that new structures are built according to strict building codes. It is most important to provide adequate livelihood assistance, and other financial services to get residents settled in the new safe area.

Strengthening livelihoods before disaster strikes through diversification, adaption, ecosystem restoration and conservation along with social protection schemes enable vulnerable communities to withstand disasters and secure food and safe water supplies.

The Himalayan states must build a viable and sustainable forest-based economy. However, forests are facing serious threats. Large tracts of green cover are being diverted for hydropower and road projects. In this scenario, the mini and micro projects give hope for a sustainable model of power generation. These projects can supply electricity to nearby villages and cater to some of the livelihood demands of the locals. While the small hydropower projects also cause damage, it is of lesser magnitude than the big projects.

On the basis of their experiences and knowledge accumulated over a long time, the indigenous population of these regions invented innovative practices that ensured their survival despite all odds. For example, the locals had knowledge about slopes that were vulnerable to landslides and therefore, this information could be used pragmatically so that the occurrences of these incidents could be minimised.

Apart from traditional practices, the amalgamation of advanced adaptive practices is also essential. One prerequisite is an effective early warning system, ie, an advance hydromet system. Apart from this, effective use of spatial and satellite data can further assist in keeping track of the geological and weather conditions of these regions from time to time. Access to information on weather warnings and climate projections is important in long-term risk reduction.

Roads in the hills are considered a symbol of development. However, roads are often constructed in a crude, unscientific, and irresponsible manner. Despite a series of disasters in the region, the government has no specific policy for development and planned construction of infrastructure here, keeping the environmental issues in mind.

It should be ensured that development project schemes are subject to proper risk screening, in terms of impact on people and assets, and on the environment and climate change in the region. This will safeguard investments and avoid introducing new risks.

Recognising the different capacities, needs and vulnerabilities of community groups and individuals and enabling their full participation in the decision-making process is central to resilience building. Ensuring that disaster risk is properly considered in policy, investment and development practices will contribute to the well-being of the people, with special attention to women, the elderly and marginalised groups.

Also read: Why India slipping to 100th position on global hunger index is worrying

Writer

Neha Yadav & Ajay Kumar Gautam Neha Yadav & Ajay Kumar Gautam

Neha Yadav is a social scientist and researcher at JNU. She writes on social and environmental issues. Ajay Kumar Gautam is a doctoral researcher at JNU and working in the field of Law and Governance.

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