Kerala Floods: Reduce vulnerability, improve resilience

The challenge of rebuilding Kerala will be an arduous process. After the relief part is over, the repair, rehabilitation and rebuilding part will start. The focus should be to ensure that every hazard does not become a disaster.

Kerala Floods: Reduce vulnerability, improve resilience
Kerala Floods: Reduce vulnerability, improve resilience (Illustration: rohnit phore)

The enduring image of the recent floods in Kerala is the one in which the young fisherman Jaisal is on all fours in flood waters to enable aged women get into a lifeboat by stepping on to his back. The real heroes of this disaster are the “ordinary” citizens of Kerala who rose to extraordinary heights during the crisis. The citizens came forward irrespective of religion, ideology or status. This author has seen and managed many such disasters, but has never seen such spontaneous response from people from all walks of life willing to go the extra mile to help others in distress. The IT-savvy young volunteers got together in no time and provided great support to rescue teams. Take the contribution of the people away from the equation, and the gaps would be large and obvious.

The challenge of rebuilding Kerala is going to be an arduous and time-consuming task. After the relief part is over, the repair, rehabilitation and rebuilding part will start. The focus should be to ensure that every hazard does not become a disaster.

This is an opportunity to build back better: stronger, faster, inclusive and sustainable. Stronger, not from a pure engineering point of view, but stronger from a vulnerability-reduction point of view, faster because normal life and livelihoods need to resume at the earliest, inclusive to include the concerns of the stakeholders, especially the vulnerable sections, and sustainable from an environmental perspective.

The usual activities allowed under the National Disaster Response Fund will be undertaken as soon as central funds are received. Health, food, water and sanitation will be taken care of. The real challenge comes thereafter.

What can Kerala do differently and be a model for India in disaster management as well?

1. Build on the strength: Its people. Make #Rebuild Kerala a movement of the people. Get as much participation from the people in planning, resource mobilisation and implementation. Connect with all Keralites who can join in with ideas, technical inputs or IT support. Build on the volunteer strength to build future rescue teams.

2. Learn from this disaster: This disaster is a big lesson. Let us not debate environment ad nauseam. Accept the fact that development in conflict with the environment is not sustainable. Humans have to learn to live with the environment. Use the new awareness to develop an environment-friendly (without making it people-unfriendly) plan for ecologically-fragile regions. Keeping floodplains free of obstructions is an imperative that cannot be ignored.

3. There has been some controversy about whether the timing of release of waters exacerbated the floods? Leaving that aside, let us ask: Can we do better next time? All the factors, excess rain, inadequate information about the quantum of rain, inadequate planning along river banks and inadequate technical planning in reservoir management are all responsible, maybe in unequal measures. Therefore, we need to do the following: Set up two Doppler weather radars in Idukki and Wayanad regions, set up adequate rain gauges and QPRs, get data on the carrying capacity of rivers, do a flood (inundation) modelling for the key river basins, create an SOP for release of water from dams, and set up adequate warning systems along the river banks. This is to be done on priority.

4. Resources: It is clear that the resources of the state government are grossly inadequate to meet the challenge. The quantum of support from the Union government is not known. Howsoever liberal this support may be, it will still be inadequate. Like Uttarakhand, Kerala can seek a quick disbursing World Bank loan. Even this may not be adequate. The effort will need support from people in and outside Kerala. There could be overwhelming response if a credible institution for rebuilding can be put in place, probably a registered society or an SPV with adequate operational freedom to perform its task. This needs to be managed by a set of well-known professionals (many distinguished Keralites can lead such an effort) with policy support and guidance from the government. The usual government agencies may not instil much confidence in attracting private contributions. Setting up such an institution could be the game-changer. There are many well-wishers in Kerala and outside who will make small but significant contributions for localised reconstruction as well. Create an enabling platform at all levels: municipal, panchayat, village, etc. Make bold changes in processes.

5. Build with better plans and designs: The ‘normal’ practice is to rebuild in the same place with higher specifications. It is necessary to take a call on spatial planning in terms of locating key infrastructure like hospitals, schools, etc. The design of roads and bridges needs to take into consideration the experience gained from these floods. It will be a good idea to design some public buildings to double as helipads/relief centres in vulnerable areas. In a disaster, we need to build buildings which are safe, but we also need buildings which are safe and functional (like hospitals).

6. Build back livelihoods: Quite often, the loss of livelihoods is forgotten in the rebuilding effort. In fact, this should be a high priority, and a separate plan should be made. Banking, insurance, logistics and marketing support is essential.

7. Review disaster management plans: In the light of the experiences, the state and district disaster management plans would need revision. These plans need to incorporate provisions for public participation in disaster management efforts. Setting up of modern state and district level emergency operation control centres should be a priority. Rescuing the disabled and the sick is always a challenge. Train people better.

8. Create a digital library of the current disaster: Use this to plan better and for training officials and volunteers.

9. Respect nature: Building in ‘landslide-prone’ areas is best avoided. If at all it has to be done, get a team of geologists to study the area before the first brick is laid.

10. This disaster threw up the issue of inadequate insurance: Introduce appropriate insurance products at the rebuilding stage.

Here is an opportunity to create a unique Kerala model for the world. Let us not waste this opportunity.

By- T Nanda Kumar. The author, a resident of Kerala, is former Secretary, government of India, and former Member, National Disaster Management Authority.

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