Preparedness most critical

Disaster Management

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

The devastating floods in Kerala have been one of the severest in the past few decades in the country, which by now is prone to the phenomenon every year in some part or the other and thousands, if not lakhs, of people are displaced. Yet the country does not have a foolproof disaster mitigation strategy, which obviously is the need of the hour. More so, as it is the poor and the economically weaker sections which get hit the most.
Shockingly, Kerala does not have inundation maps or emergency action plans as pointed out by a 2017 government audit report. In fact, the Comptroller & Auditor General of India report has found that up to March 2016, emergency action plans had been prepared for only 349 (just 7 per cent) of 4862 large dams across India and worse only 10 States have prepared these.
In the absence of such maps and action plans, though district authorities could warn local communities about an impending rise in water levels, they would do so without a clear idea of how much area will actually be flooded. A high resolution inundation map is obviously very useful as it can help guide evacuation better, say experts. At a time when shutters of dozens of dams were opened, causing water to overflow river banks downstream and contributing to floods and displacing around seven lakhs of people in Kerala, it goes without saying that such maps are critical.
And while the Central Water Commission has initiated the process for preparing inundation maps and completed them for at least 12 dams, it will take years before these maps and emergency action plans are implemented in the major dams. Till then, the same distressing scenario of displacement and loss of property, running into crores of rupees, will occur every two or three years.
The question arises whether the government has the financial resources to tackle such a calamity in its totality. Most economists believe in the negative. With insurance claims set to reach anything around Rs 4000-Rs 5000 crores, one may easily calculate the total loss to property and livelihood of people.
Further, the flooding of Kochi airport is the latest example of the vulnerability of major airports that have sprung up in the floodplains of rivers. Remember, what happened in Mumbai in 2005 and Chennai in 2015, when these cities were hit by floods due to unprecedented rainfall. Both saw their airport runways closed and operations affected for weeks following the floods. These airports were not only built near rivers but had expanded their runways into nearby rivers. However, it may be clarified that not every airport near a water body is vulnerable such as the one in Goa and Mysore.
The expansion of cities as also the government’s plan for 100 new airports therefore needs to be well planned. Instead of developing urban forestry, the cutting of trees in cities and filling up of water bodies on a large scale have accentuated floods in metros and cities. Landslides, earthquakes and specially floods have become a normal feature, more so after climate change, and thus specific measures need to be taken to lessen the harassment of the impoverished and lower income sections.
There are several causes of floods and they differ from region to region and from rural area to an urban area. Heavy rainfall is one such major cause. For instance, in July 2017, Mount Abu received the heaviest rainfall in over 300 years in a span of 24 hours and an unprecedented 700 mm of rain in 24 hours. As per a study instituted by the United Nations, climate change phenomenon is believed to be behind flash floods across the globe.
Additionally, siltation of rivers and blockage in drains are other two major causes, with landslides too being a reason of floods in hilly areas of the north and northeast. For instance, in June 2013, landslides caused a blockage of flow of streams and rivers in Uttarakhand and caused major floods, causing 5748 deaths. Natural hazards like cyclones and earthquakes and encroachments of river banks and water bodies too cause flooding.
The meagre amount that the Centre is expected to provide in the form of relief to Kerala is much less, considering the dimension of the loss. It was a similar story during the Tsunami or during the 2013 Uttarakhand floods, where at least 5000 people had died. Besides, poor finances of States are unable to tackle massive calamity.
At the same time, it is understood that the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) does not have adequate funds to take preventive measures, specially in flood-prone States. Thus, preparedness needs to be a sustained process and both the Centre along with States has to do so well in time to tackle any type of disasters, specially floods which are a recurrent occurrence.
They would do well to consider the following mitigation and rehabilitation measures: mapping of the flood prone areas; land use control to reduce danger of life and property when waters inundate flood plains and coastal areas; relocate people in perceived danger areas to better sites to reduce vulnerability; no major development be permitted in areas, subjected to high flooding; important facilities like hospitals, schools be built on safe areas and buildings be constructed on an elevated area and, if necessary, on stilts or platform; amount of runoff can be decreased with help of reforestation, protection of vegetation, clearing of debris from streams and other water holding areas, conservation of ponds and lakes etc; and flood diversion measures such as construction of levees, embankments and dams be undertaken.
Survey reports suggest that around 12 per cent of India’s land is prone to floods. As per the Central Water Commission (CWC), floods resulted in a loss of around 0.90 per cent of the total GDP from 1970s till the end of the century. However, since then, this share has come down to 0.2 per cent of the GDP. But even then, the amount is quite huge.
With population growing at a fast pace and density of people living around rivers and seas also increasing with a significant proportion living in slum-like settlements, there is every possibility of inundation affecting a large section, even if floods are not that severe. Thus, preparedness down to the sub-divisional levels is imperative if these poor people are to be saved, specially from loss of property.
Flood-prone States like Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Goa have to be extra active to tackle such calamity. Unfortunately, very few States have made budget allocations for such risk prevention and mitigation. Only time will tell, whether the NDMA estimate of around 16,000 people dying of floods and around Rs 47,000 crores worth of property being lost in the next 10 years, can be salvaged.—INFA