The depths of disaster

Poor planning can multiply losses from natural disasters. Photo credit: PTI

Poor planning can multiply losses from natural disasters. Photo credit: PTI

I arrived in India a couple of days ago to work on a research project on climate change impacts. I certainly didn’t expect to land here in the middle of a massive climate-related disaster, which has turned the floodlights on the state of India’s disaster preparedness.

About a fortnight ago, the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand was battered by heavy monsoon rainfall, resulting in a glacial lake overflow (according to some accounts), flash floods and landslides. Losses have been heavy. The event took place during a time when thousands of pilgrims visit four holy sites in Uttarakhand, and many among the victims are pilgrims. Numbers continue to rise even after a fortnight, and at the last count more than 10,000 have lost their lives, over 90,000 people have been rescued, and many are still missing. Almost 4000 villages are affected, and there have been heavy infrastructure losses, including of roads and hydro projects.

This is a catastrophe that will go down in history – and as another one where the losses cannot be entirely chalked down to nature. There is consensus that the scale of the disaster is mostly man-made, not only because of the possible link to climate change (the monsoon rains came a month earlier than usual, and the pilgrims were caught unawares), but also because of unplanned development in a fragile mountain ecosystem, and a dysfunctional disaster mitigation and management system.

The Geological Survey of India had warned, in 1994, of the perils of development in the susceptible areas of Uttarakhand, and proposed safer zones where further development could take place. This warning was ignored, and development continued unabated even on riverbeds.

Then two months ago, in April, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India warned the disaster management system in the state was “virtually non-functional” and funds provided for the purpose by the central government remained unused. “District Emergency Operations Cells” for emergency response measures were unmanned, there were no early warning system in place, and communication systems were limited.

In the blame game that follows in the aftermath, the state meteorological department points out that it has issued warning of heavy rains, and asked that the pilgrims be moved to safer places. The state government responds that they often get warning of heavy warning from the meteorological department, and cannot be expected to treat it as an emergency every time. There was no system for the state meteorological department to reach out to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), whose functioning has also been criticized, so they could urge urgent action. The NDMA head himself seems to believe in retrospective action, saying that like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami resulted in an early warning system after the event, so these floods would result in putting in place systems such as an advanced weather forecasting system.

Politicians, meanwhile, appear to be only interested in using the opportunity to garner votes, and stooped to new depths by coming to blows over which party should rescue stranded pilgrims.

To me, the events are a reminder that a cosmetic layer of “adaptation action” alone will not prepare us for future climate-related disasters. Deeper, more systemic issues must also be addressed if we are to limit human losses from the increased number of climate-related extreme events that are expected in future.

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