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Flood Disasters

Flood Disasters

Acute Monsoon flooding western and southern India has wreaked havoc on a massive scale, killing 225 people, (Kerala, being the highest with 88 deaths) with officials fearing the death toll would rise as receding waters revealed additional victims. Four states-Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Kerala continue to reel under floods with red alert issued in a number of places. Besides these states, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Himachal are also facing monsoon fury.

Train services have been suspended. Road transport has come to standstill. Helicopters and boats have been pressed to rescue people. The flooding has paralysed Kerala and Maharashtra, with flights diverted from the airports. The situation continued to remain grim with rescue operations being carried out in areas where lanes were choked due to floodwater.

The Indian Navy has rescued over 14,000 people from flood-affected areas of Maharashtra, Goa, and Karnataka under operation 'Varsha Rahat'. The Indian Air Force conducted a rescue operation in flood-affected areas along with the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and other agencies.

Emerging Trend

The current flood inundating large parts of south and western India is neither the first nor will it be the last instance of extreme weather.

Since the beginning of present decade, floods are causing havoc. Series of floods: 2013 north India floods mainly Uttarakhand, in which more than 5,700 people were presumed dead; 2015 Chennai floods; 2017 Gujarat floods killing 200 people; and August 2018 Kerala floods killing over 445 people – all suggest that a   pattern of growing adverse impact of climate change. Last year’s flooding in Kerala, and the Chennai catastrophe of 2015 showed there could be a terrible cost in terms of lives and property loss, and people displaced. Distressing scenes of death and destruction are again being witnessed.

Floods are becoming a common phenomenon in India. Over the past few decades, areas facing recurring calamities have become relatively better prepared, with an increased understanding of the risks. This does not hold true for areas that have not experienced a major calamity in the recent past. Ignoring all the safety guidelines, dwellings, factories, and infrastructure facilities have been constructed in areas that are potentially vulnerable to natural hazards like floods.

According to the database compiled by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, the instances of extreme weather have gone up from 71 in the 1970s to about 224 in the 1990s and 350 in the first decade of the millennium.

Call it climate change or whatever, but the incidence of extreme weather has been going up rather dramatically in the last three to four decades. Kerala flood is a lesson that should be held out nationally. It also raises the question: Is India ready managing disaster arising out of extreme climate?

Policy Approach

India enacted National Disaster Management Act in 2005 and the National Policy for Disaster Management (NPDM) in 2009. The NPDM has a vision to build a safe and disaster resilient India by developing a holistic, proactive, multi-disaster oriented and technology driven strategy through a culture of prevention, mitigation, preparedness, and response. The primary responsibility for management of disaster rests with the State Government concerned.

As India suffers one of the worst floods in recent decades, questions are being raised about the role of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). The apex body to deal with all types of disasters, natural or man-made, was constituted in 2006. The objective of the authority has been to lay down policies and guidelines for effective management, risk mitigation, and prevention of disasters in the country. However, in many places people were caught unawares by the series of flash floods and landslides in the absence of any mitigation measure or early warning system.

The CAG report in the past had also highlighted several loopholes in the functioning of NDMA. It said none of the major projects taken up by NDMA was complete even after several years of its functioning. The projects were either abandoned midway or were being redesigned because of initial poor planning. The major projects include producing vulnerability atlases for floods, earthquakes and landslides, risk mitigation project, and national disaster management information system.

Despite the emphasis on a paradigm shift to a preparedness approach by the government, most parts of the country continue to follow a relief-centric approach in disaster management, rather than a proactive prevention, mitigation, and preparedness path. There is a need for investing in disaster preparedness and mitigation across the country, irrespective of whether any state has been hit by a disaster or not. India needs to adopt a collaborative approach, where the roles of the government, corporations, academia, civil societies, and communities are recognised, and all actors work hand-in-hand towards achieving disaster resilience.

Challenges emerging

Flooding kills thousands of people each year in India, the damage exacerbated by weak enforcement of building standards, high rates of poverty and unplanned communities springing up in high-risk areas.

Research in 2016 found that flooding was the most significant risk to communities and businesses in south Asia and that about 113 million people in India – nearly 10% of the population – were acutely exposed to flood hazard.

Without hurting the sensitivities of those whose lives have been severely disrupted by this situation, this tragedy, with the benefit of hindsight could have been avoided or at least mitigated. This is not to play a blame game — as some immature politicians are already doing — but it points to a larger lesson that can be learnt. It is a collective failure over decades.

The immediate takeaway is that the consequences of environmental neglect do not manifest in normal weather conditions. However, when they intersect with extreme weather conditions — as it has happened in the case of Kerala — the impact can be devastating.

According to the database compiled by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, the instances of extreme weather have gone up from 71 in the 1970s to about 224 in the 1990s and 350 in the first decade of the millennium.

Future Steps

Different stakeholders need to come together for mapping risks, vulnerabilities, and resources; engage in regular preparedness actions like drills and capacity building; develop and update emergency plans; check the availability of resources at the local level; and act upon early warning intimations. While the government works towards strengthening systems and mechanisms for preparedness and response, civil society has a major role to play, at the community level, for disaster preparedness. In drafting their management plans, States must be aware of the scientific consensus: that future rain spells may be short, often unpredictable, and very heavy, influenced by a changing climate.

Ray of Hope

It is very hard to understand why we do not seem to grasp the immensity and urgency of climate change that is already unfolding around us. With large-scale floods in India, it has become clear that this is the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced.

Yet we have chosen to ignore a threat that is already at our doorstep. The climate change hardly ever figures in political discussions in India. We have only to open a newspaper, or turn on the TV, to see that dozens of issues receive more attention than, say, the ongoing drought, and the agrarian crisis more generally.

Under the circumstances, already-existing organisations have an important role to play—and religious groups can certainly mobilise people in large numbers. This is evident from the example of Pope Francis who has done more to bring climate change to the forefront of the global agenda than anyone else. He is a true visionary, a really remarkable thinker and leader. The Dalai Lama, too, has spoken eloquently on the issue of climate change. A few Hindu and Muslim groups have also taken stands on climate change.

Conclusion

Increasingly in the modern era, dynamic pressures such as population, growth, composition, and distribution as well as income inequality, stratification, and poverty have exacerbated disaster vulnerability among communities in unprecedented and profound ways. Previous disasters, such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Gujarat brought to light the differential impacts of disaster on certain communities, particularly those that did not have the necessary resources to cope with and recover from such devastating events. Disaster is socially constructed events that need to be studied from a social science perspective.

India must address its crippling cycles of drought and flood with redoubled vigour. Present floods in Kerala and Maharashtra have revived questions of coordination and efficiency in water resource management.

(Joseph A Gathia is journalist and writer.)

(Published on 19th August 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 34)