NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A year ago, Indians were shocked when catastrophic floods hit the state of Uttarkhand in the country’s northwest, killing more than 5,500 and affecting more than 100,000 others.
Experts blamed the heavy toll in part on the state government’s lack of preparedness to handle disasters, despite a history of calamities in the region, including 1998 flooding that killed over 300 people in one village.
Last year’s flood, considered India’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 Asian tsunami, has left experts questioning whether the country is adequately prepared to respond to disasters, particularly at the state and local level.
“Each disaster continues to frustrate the government and the community. The country needs professional approaches,” said Chandan Ghosh, head of the geo-hazard risk management division at the National Institute of Disaster Management.
According to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, India’s disaster profile is alarming. Almost 85 percent of the country is vulnerable to one or more hazards such as earthquakes, floods, droughts, cyclones and landslides. More than 50 million people are affected by natural disasters annually, according to the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM).
Yet India’s preparedness lags far behind what is needed given the magnitude of the potential dangers, expert say.
“There are significant gaps in preparedness on various aspects of risk management, particularly for catastrophic disasters like major earthquakes and floods,” said P.G. Dhar Chakraborti, a former head of the disaster management authority and a senior fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a New Delhi-based think tank.
According to Dhar Chakraborti , India’s vulnerability arises in part because of a lack of know-how for assessing risks at very local level, poor enforcement of standards and regulations, and inadequate risk mitigation.
LAW PASSED BUT NOT IN EFFECT
Although a 2005 law on disaster management has been put into effect at the national level, it exists only on paper in a few states and districts, experts say.
The act created a National Disaster Management Authority, with the power to allocate resources and supervise disaster management across the country. A national disaster response force was also formed for rescue and evacuation.
In addition, the act authorised the government to strengthen existing infrastructure in disaster-prone areas and help create an early-warning system.
The few states with functioning state disaster management authorities, such as Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Bihar, are the ones with the most serious history of natural disasters, said Dhar Chakraborti.
But other vulnerable states like Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim and Assam need to step up their preparedness considerably, he said.
There are concerns that even one of the most affluent and resource-rich states – Maharashtra – needs to do much more.
A 2014 World Development Report said Maharashtra’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, Mumbai, remains highly vulnerable to the heavy rains that occur almost annually, despite well-identified solutions to reduce the risks.
The city’s drainage system is over 100 years old and incapable of handling annual monsoon rains, the report said. Following a heavy monsoon in 2005 that killed over 400 people and caused huge damage to infrastructure and buildings, a committee recommended overhauling the drainage system, but implementation of the plan has lagged, the report said.
Although all of India’s states have departments of disaster management or relief and rehabilitation, they are still poorly prepared to lend support in times of disasters, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which has been working with the central government and several states over the past decade to prepare disaster management plans, set up emergency operations centres, assess risks and train search and rescue teams.
“Facilities such as emergency operations centres, emergency communications, and search and rescue teams are being made available... but these systems and facilities need to be strengthened,” said Krishna Vatsa, the UNDP’s Bangkok-based regional disaster risk-reduction advisor.
The problem is not one of money, according to Vatsa. The national government has budgeted a total of around $5 billion to prepare for disasters for the period 2010–2015, with the central government contributing 75 percent and the states the remainder. With these resources, the state governments can set up systems, train staff and improve their coordination with districts, Vatsa said.
But in a number of recent disasters, 2010 mudslides in Leh (India’s second largest district in Jammu and Kashmir state), a Sikkim earthquake in 2011 and the Uttarkhand floods of 2013, the level of preparedness was inadequate, leading to high levels of mortality and displacement of people, according to TERI.
“Disaster management is yet to be seen as an essential part of good governance and integral to development planning,” said disaster risk reduction specialist Hari Krishna Nibanupudi of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
“The biggest concern is the attitude of policy makers, implementers and local government towards investing in people-oriented preparedness at different levels,” said Aslam Perwaiz, head of disaster risk management systems at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre
India’s capacity to manage disaster risk is challenged by its size and huge population, according to a report by the Overseas Development Institute, a British think tank. The report said the country is likely to have the greatest exposure of any nation in the world to extreme weather and natural disasters by 2030.
The northeast region is most at risk from earthquakes and lacks seismically secure infrastructure and buildings, according to the report. It is also vulnerable to landslides, floods and erosion.
Flooding on the country’s plains is a regular occurrence, and although communities are resilient, the intensity of floods has reduced their capacity to adapt, Sharma said. He added that local adaptation efforts driven solely by communities are no longer sufficient and additional, scientifically planned adaptation is needed, which will require government support.
SUCCESS IN ODISHA
Some efforts have been made in southern India’s coastal states to deal with coastal disasters, especially in Odisha, which won acclaim for its effective response to cyclone Phailin in October 2013.
The death toll was fewer than 50 after the successful evacuation of nearly a million people to cyclone shelters and safe locations in the state and in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state, according to the National Institute of Disaster Management. In 1999, over 10,000 people were killed by a cyclone in the same area.
“A lot of initiatives are taking place on the ground” to strengthen vulnerable communities, Ghosh said, including preparedness and mitigation measures in 176 districts prone to multiple hazards across 17 vulnerable states.
At the national level, the National Disaster Management Authority has a trained national disaster response force with 10 battalions, each with 5,000-10,000 personnel, stationed in several parts of the country for speedy deployment for rescue, evacuation and response.
Naresh Newar is a Kathmandu-based writer with an interest in climate change issues.
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The terrible floods in India's tiny north Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, which killed more than 1,000 people, left 70,000 stranded for days and destroyed livelihoods, have been officially termed a natural calamity caused by cloudbursts and unprecedented heavy monsoon rainfall.
However, the true causes of the epic tragedy lie in the grievous damage recently wrought on the region's ecology by the runaway growth of tourism, unchecked proliferation of roads, hotels, shops and multistory housing in ecologically fragile areas, and above all mushrooming hydroelectricity dams that disrupt water balances. Underlying the disaster are multiple governance failures, too.
These man-made factors turned an extreme weather event into a social catastrophe. True, the region experienced heavy rainfall of 340-370mm within 24 hours on June 16-17, leading to flash floods. But such precipitation isn't unprecedented. Uttarakhand has recorded single-day rainfall in excess of 400mm several times, including 450mm in 1995 and 900mm in 1965. Cloudbursts, floods and rapid swelling of fast-flowing rivers aren't uncommon.
But this time the floodwaters, laden with tens of thousands of tonnes of silt, boulders and debris from dam construction, found no outlet. The routes they took in the past, including ravines and streams, were blocked with sand and rocks. The waters inundated scores of towns and villages, submerging some buildings under several feet of mud, smothering life.
Aggravating the devastation were two downpours of water and rocks from the higher mountain ranges, in all probability caused by glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs), which deluged the Kedarnath temple, a major Hindu pilgrimage centre. GLOFs, or the explosive bursting of glacier lakes, are thought to be a consequence of human-induced climate change, which is causing rapid melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, themselves warming at twice the global rate.
Such a massive loss of life could have been greatly reduced if an early warning system, effective evacuation plans and a responsive disaster management system were in place. They weren't. In fact, as the comptroller and auditor general pointed out in April, the Uttarakhand Disaster Management Authority, formed in October 2007, has never met or formulated "rules, regulations, polices or guidelines". Modestly priced radar-based technology to forecast cloudbursts would have saved lives. But it wasn't installed. Nor were emergency evacuation plans drawn up.
There was local-level governance failure, too. Haphazard, unregulated construction of roads and bridges was allowed on crumbling, landslide-prone ridges and steep slopes, ignoring the region's fragile geology and high earthquake vulnerability. Forests were destroyed on a large scale. Hundreds of buildings were constructed in the flood plains of rivers, their "natural" terrain, which should be no-go areas. Riverbeds were recklessly mined for sand. As construction debris accumulated, land contours and flows of streams and rivers changed.
Indiscriminate building of hydroelectric dams was the worst culprit. These involve drilling huge tunnels in the hills by blasting rocks, placing enormous turbines in the tunnels, destroying soil-binding vegetation to build water channels and other infrastructure, laying transmission lines and carelessly dumping excavated muck. Many dams have been built on the same river so close to one another that they leave no scope for its regeneration.
Dams steal water from local people. They alter the hydrological cycle and natural course of rivers. Uttarakhand's 70 completed large dams have diverted more than 640km, equivalent to half the length of its major rivers. They have profoundly destabilised its ecology. Yet another 680 dams are reportedly in various stages of commissioning, construction or planning, mainly by private companies, which would be largely unaccountable.
A 2009 CAG report complained that the government was "pursuing hydro-power projects indiscriminately", ignoring the damaging "cumulative effect" of multiple run-of-the river dams. Technically, India's environment ministry follows an environmental impact assessment process, but that's badly compromised by the Indian elite's insatiable appetite for electricity and promoters' pressure.
When I was on the expert appraisal committee (EAC) on river valley projects in the 1990s, none of the dozens of projects we examined had adequate documentation on the impact on forests, wildlife, hydrology or rehabilitation. All were rejected. The present EAC has approved all 262 projects placed before it over six years, without seriously evaluating their impact or the rivers' carrying capacity. This is a recipe for yet more Uttarakhands.