Disaster at NDMA
The PM of India heading the NDMA through his proxy called Deputy Chair have failed to contain disaster like Kerala what to talk about national disaster calendar making
Media call it the worst flood of the century in the region. After more than two weeks of relentless rain, Kerala, a state at the southern tip of India, known internationally for its scenic green landscapes, touristic spots and backwaters, was left with over 1 million people in relief camps, and close to 400 reported dead — the number is expected to be much higher, as many areas remain inaccessible.
In the mountainous Coorg or Kodagu district in the neighbouring state of Karnataka, thousands of people have been marooned because of torrential rains. Exacerbated by landslides in hilly terrain, flooding has led to the destruction of homes, bridges, road networks and industries.
Far from being a surprise, the possibility of such devastation was highlighted several years ago.
NEED TO CHANGE APPROACH
In 2011, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, chaired by the internationally renowned ecologist Madhav Gadgil, submitted a report to the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests. The report warned that an ill-thought focus on development was impacting the sustainability of the Western Ghats hill chain, one of the world’s most biodiverse areas that runs along the west coast of India. The expert report urged a number of states, including Karnataka and Kerala, to adopt an approach of thoughtful conservation, limiting activities such as quarrying, dams and construction near protected forests in hilly areas. The report was rejected by the Ministry as well as by both states.
In retrospective, it is clear that the worst flood damage took place in those regions where the Gadgil committee recommended protection.
In Kodagu, for instance, tens to hundreds of thousands of large trees were felled in 2015 to construct a high-tension electric wire line. Uncontrolled sand mining has constrained river flows, while the rapid spread of high-rise buildings on unstable hill slopes has weakened the soil. This unplanned development has left the area susceptible to flash floods and landslides, caused by a combination of tree felling on steep hill slopes and heavy rainfall.
The flooding of the Kochi airport is another example of poor planning leading to disastrous outcomes. The airport was built on the paddy fields and wetlands adjacent to the Periyar River, and extends up to the banks of the river on one side.
The longest river in Kerala, has a number of dams – some of which had to be opened to release water during the rains. The airport was badly hit, with estimated economic costs of at least Rs 500 crores because of its forced closure for several days.
The Periyarriver is not the only one that has been dammed. The state of Kerala has 44 rivers with a total of 61 dams. Many had to be opened across Kerala as they were dangerously full – a step that, while essential during a time of emergency, contributed to the heavy flooding. A 2017 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India warned that not a single one of these dams had an emergency action plan in place for disaster management. Pre- and post-monsoon safety inspections had not been carried out for any of these dams either.
Given how likely it is that coastal and riverine cities will experience flooding in coming years, you would think we know better than to build airports near bodies of water. Yet Kochi airport is not an exception. The runways of the Mumbai airport have been built over the Mithiriver, and the airport is located on a reclaimed pond. One of the runways of the Chennai airport extends over the Adyarriver, affecting its long-term safety and stability.
It is no surprise that these airports, which are among the busiest in India, frequently flood when the rains are heavy – leading to large-scale economic losses. Yet the new Navi Mumbai airport is coming up in an equally unsuitable location on coastal wetlands.
REVERSING THE TRENDS
In the era of climate change we have just entered, extreme rainfall events are going to become increasingly common. Uncontrolled growth at the expense of the environment will severely exacerbate the impacts of climate change. Our cities are simply not prepared for extreme weather events. The recent collapse of a bridge in Genoa, killing at least 43 people, is linked to poor maintenance, but also to heavy rainfall.
Certain types of infrastructure may be less suitable to some contexts in a changing climate scenario. Wildfires in California cause extensive damage to private property because many cities are extending their boundaries into forest areas. As local climate becomes hotter and drier, with fires becoming more likely, new homes are being built in areas that are highly susceptible to fire instead of less exposed locations.
Some cities are seeking to reverse this trajectory of unplanned construction. Nairobi is in the midst of an extensive demolition drive, uprooting thousands of
buildings built on riparian land that choke the flow of water and contribute to severe annual floods.
In Seoul, between 2002 and 2005, the city municipality tore up an elevated highway that had been built over the Cheonggyecheon stream. This internationally famous urban-renewal project reduced traffic, reduced air pollution and cut the urban heat-island effect. In Yonkers, New York, an ongoing project aims to restore the buried Saw Mill River.
Similar urban river day lighting projects are gaining traction in cities around the world. Zurich has been an early pioneer, developing the Bachkonzept (stream concept) to create, restore and uncover a number of streams and springs. London, which built over a number of famous rivers, has now uncovered and restored a number of these waterways, while Sheffield, having experimented with day lighting, is now considering uncovering sections of the local Sheaf River.
The demonstrated ecological and environmental benefits are clear — as are the social and economic returns. For example, Seoul’s iconic Cheonggyecheon stream restoration led to a more than sixfold increase in biodiversity, a 35 percent decrease in air pollution and a growth in property prices that is double of that in other parts of the city.
The restored stream attracts tens of thousands of visitors daily who contribute significantly to the local economy. Such ideas of restoration need to become more widespread, and embedded in routine climate change and disaster management planning. The investment made is amply repaid many times over in economic security and growth, biodiversity, local health and quality of life, and resilience against future disasters.
Once the emergency relief is attended to, Kochi and Kodagu would do well to use their recent experience as a warning of future disasters to come in a world of increasingly uncertain climate.
The focus must be on long-term restoration projects that can reverse some of the environmental and ecological damage that has led to the current situation. But such learning need not be confined to the areas that have experienced the worst. The rest of the world has much to learn as well.
CRISIS IN DISASTER MANAGEMENT
Today, when the ‘God’s Own Country’ Kerala resembles a disaster zone as floods swamp the State. Interestingly, the nine member body is chaired by the Prime Minister of India. The story resounds across States as the deluge ravages cities, erases villages, sluices roads, damages crops, sweeps bodies, cripples train services, shut down airports and wreaks havoc in the economy bringing everything to a grinding halt. Mumbai yesterday, Kochi today, Chennai tomorrow, Kolkata, Guwahati next. Underscoring a stark reality: Government’s fiasco and failure to prepare expertise in predicting rainfall intensity and its impact. Succinctly, disaster management is a disaster.
Here, one can ask when we already have a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) why such disaster was allowed to happen. Thanks to Government’s criminal casualness – kaamchalao! Babudom’s “choordyaar” attitude, unabated construction, insufficient cleaning of drains, encroachments of sprawling slums alongside rivers and streams, shoddy management of storm water drains, dug-up roads, no de-silting etc. Heavy development had destroyed green spaces and mangrove forests, its natural flood protection resulting in inadequate drainage system as no amount of man-made storm water drains can make
up for natural drains. While the severity of the rains can be termed as an ‘act of God’, the mess, misery and damage is certainly man-made and mostly caused by human error.
An example. Tamil Nadu has witnessed 8 severe cyclones in 13 years so one expects the national and State disaster management teams would be hands-on to tackle the emergency. The reality: Zilch, as disaster preparedness is non-existent. There is no clear line of communication or coordination among State agencies involved in search and rescue operations, only families checking on each other.
Months of flooding in 13 States have caused huge economic losses and heaped misery on millions of people. Questionably, why is the country’s preparedness for natural disasters so poor? Why are longterm responses not developed to what is an annual expected problem? Why aren’t adequate arrangements made to ensure survivors don’t die of starvation, due to the administration’s ineptitude. Do we know the ABC of disaster management? Are we inept or plain lazy bordering on the “kifarakpaindahai” (What difference does it make) attitude?
Till date 2,000 people have been killed and more than 42 million affected – displaced or stranded. Alas, our preparedness to deal with calamity is as rag-tag as ever. Far from having a defense system against elemental fury, the Central and State Governments seem to be banking on hope that any future disaster would not be as destructive as the last. It seems that it’s not for our polity to implementation of basic suggestions and developing longterm responses.
Unfortunately, in a nation natured on
short-cuts and quick-fix solutions, none are motivated to do anything about disaster management or finding lasting solutions. Let alone spell it, our leaders have, never even heard about it. They do not know the A, B, C, D of managing a crisis. More shocking, according to a report by the UN, India spends about $10 billion every year for crisis management. Could have we spend this sum of money for disaster management?
Across the globe disaster management is seen as an essential part of good governance and integral to development planning, not so in India. There is lack of know-how for assessing risks at local level, poor enforcement of standards and regulations and inadequate risk mitigation, no flood risk mapping concept and flood forecasting network. Add to this failure towards climate change mitigation and adaptation, lack of coordination and inadequate training at the ground level totals disaster in mitigating losses.
Besides, we have yet to understand the atypical relationship between development and disasters. Disasters can set back development even as post-disaster scenario provides new opportunities for development. Similarly, development can reduce vulnerability and yet, the same development can increase vulnerability.
Think. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was setup amidst much fanfare with an ambitious three-layer (national, State and district) plan to decentralize disaster management right up to district levels and guidelines and policies were drawn to that effect. On paper: Good. On ground: Dud.
A 2013 scathing CAG report minced no words: The NDMA neither had information and control over progress of (disaster management-related) work at the State level nor was it successful in implementation of various projects. It is “ineffective in its functioning in most of the core areas.” What’s more, the Authority has been functioning without its core advisory committee of experts that advises it on different aspects of disaster management for the past three years!
Said a senior NDMA official, “The NDMA was bound to fail, as we were always a topheavy organisation with many having no expertise in the realm of disaster. Worse, it is not performing several functions prescribed in the Disaster Management Act, 2005. No long-term responses have been developed, as it is assumed that by sanctions monies their job is done.” Who will be held accountable? Whose head will roll?
Woefully, there are no emergency operations centres or trained personnel to search and rescue people. Shockingly, this is not due to lack of money, since 2010 till date the Central Government has budgeted over $5 billion to prepare for disasters with the Centre contributing 75%.
Experts aver due to global warming frequent and intense extreme weather events means India must improve its planning and reduce the potential impact of disasters before they occur. Communication and connectivity enhancement have become the need of the hour. Satellite images tell us about the
affected areas during a calamity, but we need higher resolution images.
Towards that end, our leaders need to involve experts and environmentalists with a track record of research and policy making. Who would evaluate the ecological problems, study its context and be involved in decision and policy-making. With special emphasis on problems created by burgeoning population and its impact on the local eco-system, growth of hap-hazard housing, environmental insanitation and decay.
The problem is neither States nor Centre have a robust decision-support system. If the meteorological department indicates heavy rainfall, what are the implications? Who should be evacuated, and from where to where? We need to move from simple forecasting to impact forecasting and ensure information flows faster than the floodwater. In such situations, the communication system is the first to collapse.
High time we transit quickly to preparedness-centric approach instead of continuing to be in the relief-centric mode and invest in better flood forecasting policy. One way environmentalists believe this could be improved is if evacuated people had safe structures on firm ground and not in flood plains; something authorities have not been able to ensure.
Another is for States to build regional mutual-aid centres, with quick response teams as it is wasteful for each State to build parallel inventories, forecasting systems and teams as these are alongside. Flood destruction could be minimized if forecasting and mapping is accurate. However climate change complicates this as places which did not previously suffer floods are now experiencing unprecedented levels of rainfall.
True, Namo’s response has been dabang till date, undertaking aerial surveys of affected districts and earmarking monies from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. But this is not enough. India needs to focus on long-term planning else without a shift in approach each disaster will continue to frustrate the Government and plague people.
Remember, desperate situations demand desperate action. The Government must stop playing pied piper. Life is not about collating statistics but flesh and blood. No longer can we ostrich-like bury our heads in the sand and wail, “what’s the big deal”,” disaster management never heard of it!”
URGENT STEPS REQUIRED
So, in short, Indian NDMA needs some immediate revival as it is expected to execute what the Federal Emergency Management Agency of the US is doing. They report before the disaster rather chipping in in relief and rehabilitation of the disaster. They have a national disaster calendar which takes care of each and every hurricane, forest fire etc. and inform people in its affected area. Similarly, in Japan — a place which is notorious for earthquakes — the Japanese Disaster Management System has list of all active volcanoes.
They have information of which volcano is going to burst at what time frame. So, they evacuate the affected place and save lives and their wealth. The NDMA of India also needs to work on those lines. But, for that, it needs an active structure. A Prime Minister who is heading it with a proxy called Deputy Chair won’t be enough. In fact, it requires regular monitoring of its chapters and office bearer’s responsibilities. But, the fact of the matter is, they haven’t sit for long. So, what to talk about their quality disposal.
Flood affected area in Kerala
A rescue team evacuates people from a flood-affected area in Kerala
Prime Minister Narendra Modi conducting an aerial survey of flood affected areas in Kerala
Fisherman rescues Kerala flood victims
Congress President Rahul Gandhi visits the flood-affected areas in Idukki, Kerala
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan accompanied by Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, at a relief camp in Kochi