Jun 272013

My column in today’s DNA
Nature’s fury. Human blunder. Himalayan tsunami. These are just some of the hyperbolic terms used to describe the cloudburst, flash floods and the subsequent devastation that has wracked Uttarakhand over the last week or so. But, this is neither the first disaster to hit India in the last few decades, nor will it be the last.
Asia, in general, and South Asia in particular, is often called the “supermarket of disasters” because almost everything that can go wrong with nature goes wrong here — even without the presence of human beings. Earthquakes, landslides, cloud bursts, famine and volcanoes are all par for the course. Add dense population, the need to meet the aspirations of this population, negotiable integrity, a ‘who-has-seen-tomorrow’ nonchalance, and government ineptitude and you have a disaster just waiting to happen.

The Boxing Day Tsunami, also called the Indian Ocean Tsunami that hit Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and parts of India saw almost 2.25 lakh deaths across the region, countless injured and billions of dollars of loss in terms of property and infrastructure. In terms of loss of life, it has been the single biggest disaster of this century. Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in Burma, led to almost 140,000 lives being lost. The more recent tsunami that hit Japan saw loss of not just life and property, but an additional risk caused by a nuclear reactor being impacted by nature’s fury. In recent years, Mount Merapi in Indonesia blew its top causing death and destruction with flaming lava. And these are barely the tip of the disaster iceberg.
In May, the United Nations released a report that had estimated the cost incurred due to disasters to around US $2.5 trillion, at least 50 per cent higher than earlier estimates. Scientists expect earth to be hit by more hazards in the years to come — some caused by earth itself changing, others by changes brought about by human beings and our desire to harness nature. When a natural hazard becomes a disaster, we count the loss in terms of life, limb, property and infrastructure. But, there is a cost that is not counted — that is the cost borne by populations and that cost is development. The loss of buildings is quantifiable — for example, a school is washed away, and it will cost RsX to rebuild. How do you quantify the loss in education to all the children who live in that area? Similarly, the loss of a factory is quantifiable as is the loss in livelihood. But how do you measure the loss in self-respect and self-esteem — a wage earner who suddenly becomes dependent on handouts.
Given the fact that we live in a world that is dangerous — even before humans start wars or riots — there are two ways of dealing with natural hazards and their aftermath. The first is the current mode, which is wait for a disaster to happen and then rush in with resources and aid. In the past 60 years this has been the main method of dealing with disasters — aid agencies and governments pour millions into rescue and rehabilitation. However, this method is reactive, and while rehabilitation occurs, there is no way that lives and livelihood and lost development can be recovered. Also, given that natural disasters are striking more frequently, there is an onset of “donor fatigue” — a slowdown of public response posts a disaster that impacts the poorest of the poor the most. From the donors point of view: How many times do you help people in the same region rebuild, especially given that they fall prey to the same mistakes?
The second is a mode that says that the world is a dangerous place; let’s learn to mitigate these dangers through policy-making, planning, publicising and participation. The aim of this mode is to make communities resilient so that they can overcome the effects of the disaster by themselves, with minimal impact on life, livelihood and quality of living. The aim here is to make Disaster Risk Reduction a part of everyday policy — from building of roads, to the construction of homes; from encouraging kitchen gardens to putting in place community shelters. The idea is spend a little more now, and tomorrow when disaster strikes you don’t have to spend billions. The idea is, when a natural hazard occurs, it does not become a disaster, and loss to life and property is minimal.
No government on earth can prevent a cloud burst, nor can they prevent flash floods or tsunamis or their impact on the world at large. What governments can do, however, is to mitigate the effects of the disaster through careful planning of all aspects of development in a region, by keeping in mind the fact that it is prone to a certain type of natural hazard. This does not mean one puts development on the back burner. It is, however, possible to undertake sensible development — where you factor in the environmental hazards. To give an example, Japan lies in one of the most earthquake prone regions of the world. The great earthquake of 1923 killed almost 150,000 people. Since then there have been a number of earthquakes, yet the casualty figures are minimal. That is because the Japanese have internalised that they live in a dangerous part of the world, and disaster-risk reduction is part of their national ethos. Every construction is earthquake proof. And, Japan has some of the tallest buildings of any nation.
India lurches from disaster to disaster and relief to relief. And, this really is going to do no one any good unless long-term disaster preparedness becomes part of the national ethos. Not just the government, but every single citizen. It is in the way development is planned, buildings are constructed, people are trained, and citizens are prepared. Else, all we can do is mourn our dead, count our losses and pray for the survivors.

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