Edit & Opinion

Tackling Natural Disasters | Strategy and Far Sight Vital

In the wake of Cyclone Vayu which is plummeting Gujarat, disaster management is once again in the eye of the storm. Notwithstanding the stupendous rescue and evacuation operations by Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik of over 13 lakhs people who were affected by Cyclone Fani recently. The State needs at least Rs 1,00,000 crores to rebuild damaged houses and public infrastructure wiped out by the storm.

Today, the Western State sails in the same boat with power supply being disrupted in over 560 villages and over being three lakh people being evacuated to safer areas. Over 77 trains bound for Gujarat have been cancelled and nearly 1000 NDRF personnel including medical and rescue experts are stationed therein to expedite rescue and relief operations.

Certainly, India has its fair share of natural disasters such as floods, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches and forest fires in the last few years with global warming aggravating its frequency which causes a huge loss to the life, property, economy and infrastructure.

In fact, not many are aware that 27 States and Union Territories out of 35 are disaster prone, almost 58.6% of the landmass is affected by earthquakes of moderate to very high intensity; over 40 million hectares (12 % land) are predisposed to floods and river erosion; of the 7,516 km long coastline, close to 5,700 km is inclined to cyclones and tsunamis; 68% of the cultivable area is vulnerable to drought and hilly areas are at risk from landslides and avalanches.

In this milieu, the proposed global Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) — an Indian initiative on the lines of the Solar Alliance of 120 countries — is a step in the right direction which received a boost with India pledging Rs 480 crores to set up a secretariat in New Delhi.

The initiative has the support of the UN and the World Bank. Among the 33 countries which have already supported the Indian initiative, Italy, UK, Australia, South Africa and European Union have agreed to fund the new organization set to be declared at the UN Climate Summit, scheduled at the UN headquarters this September.

Pertinently, the CDRI will work to develop common standards in infrastructure building and invest in research and development that will also determine funding from multilateral banks towards future investments by countries. The coalition’s charter provides for facilitating collaborative start-ups between countries to develop knowledge platforms on disaster and climate risk and resilience for infrastructure.

Meanwhile an UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) study October last found 95% of all disasters in the past two decades (1996-2017) were caused by floods, storms, droughts, heat waves and other extreme weather events.  Globally, disaster losses during this period were estimated at $ 3 trillion.

Low income countries like India suffered greater economic losses with up to 87% of their disasters not reported recording losses of $ 80 billion during the 20-year period. Globally disaster losses are estimated at $ 520 billion per annum, pushing more than 26 million people into poverty every year. As a result, inequality is rising at a far greater pace than projected, the study rightly revealed.

Among natural disasters, many earthquakes have been witnessed in the Himalayan region but India has not learnt from past mistakes to tackle such an eventuality. At an international workshop on ‘Climate Change & Extreme Weather Events’ held recently, experts discussed the effects of climate change, melting of glaciers, increased frequency of weather events, atmospheric pollution etc. Scientists from various fields of expertise concurred that an earthquake of the magnitude of 8.5 or more is expected to rock the Himalayan region.

These research groups, including the one in IIT Roorkee are in the process of developing earthquake early warning systems which could give people up to a minute of warning before the quake. A section of scientists believe that science can tell where an earthquake may strike and with what magnitude, but predicting the time might not be possible.

Though it is generally regarded that prediction of quakes is a rather impossible task, the efforts of engineers at Roorkee would go a long way in saving lives. However, seismologists believe that even such warning to enable people to safely vacate their buildings before an earthquake, homes might still be destroyed, turning a whole society into refugees. Additionally, not a few pointed out that publicly funded Government buildings in Himalayan States such as Sikkim and Manipur could not survive low intensity earthquakes.

The need for buildings to be quake resilient is repeatedly being stressed, akin to medical instruments being sterilised before use, irrespective of whether a patient is rich or poor. Thus, building of proper infrastructure is necessary for which the CDRI might play a significant role in the coming years.

Another natural disaster which is almost a recurring problem for India every year is floods. Melting of glaciers and excessive rainfall in certain parts of the country has resulted in floods in many regions, specially the North East. Add to this, cutting down of trees and clearing forests has aggravated the situation. In such circumstances, lack of infrastructure has resulted in massive loss of lives and property.

Clearly, the whole issue is one of serious concern but planners have not given it enough attention as the sufferers are mostly poor people who reside in villages and in coastal belts of the country. Very few people in cities and urban areas have been affected and since the focus of our planning strategy is urban centric, flood protection has not received due attention in terms of resource allocation. Consequently, floods are witnessed almost every year though, in recent years, evacuating people from flood affected areas has been faster than before.

In such a critical situation, there is need to evolve a strategy to counter all types of natural disasters in an effective manner. It needs to be pointed out, that unlike the West, which is economically better equipped to handle climate change and its repercussions, countries like India and China bear the brunt of disasters caused by rising emissions and a warmer planet.

Besides, if there are no floods or cyclones in the country, India faces drought in several areas. The rise in temperatures is rather phenomenal causing natural disasters. In fact, temperatures in three cities Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi have seen a steady rise during the last several years.

Undoubtedly, infrastructure development and awareness generation have to be taken up in right earnest by the Government. Side by side there is also need to involve grass-root organizations in tackling disasters, specially floods, cyclones and earthquakes.

Further, human rights institutions are uniquely placed to play a role in ensuring that the human rights of those affected by natural disasters are promoted. Those that have expertise in human rights principles and are rooted in locally might have a better view of what is needed and what is possible than national actors.

True, specific national contexts might vary and different kinds of disasters require different responses, but the need to uphold human rights in emergency situations is constant. —- INFA

 

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