Over the past couple of decades, with the help of technology and strong policy measures, India’s disaster response mechanism, and specifically Odisha’s, has improved significantly.
By Suresh Subudhi & Shubhika Bilgrami
More than 52 towns in nine major districts of Odisha were impacted from the ‘extremely severe’ Cyclone Fani, which had a landfall in Puri recently. Cyclone Fani brought back harsh memories of the devastating 1999 supercyclone that killed nearly 10,000 people in the state and caused massive damage to property. While the intensity of both the cyclones was the same, the deaths due to Cyclone Fani have been far less. The evacuation of over 1.4 million people, coupled with the setting up of nearly 880 disaster relief centres and continuous communication, helped save thousands of lives.
Over the past couple of decades, with the help of technology and strong policy measures, India’s disaster response mechanism, and specifically Odisha’s, has improved significantly. It is commendable how the administration in Odisha has been able to minimise the impact of cyclones on human life.
However, as a country, India has to still work on strengthening the resilience of many of its vulnerable cities. Resilient cities are those that are able to swiftly bounce back to normalcy post a disaster. While the deaths were minimised in Odisha, the infrastructure and ecology has been severely affected in the state and the rebuild efforts are likely to take time. Cities in India are vulnerable to a large number of disasters. While 29 Indian cities are prone to severe earthquakes, 53 are prone to severe cyclones. Many cities are also prone to floods, rising sea levels, avalanches, tsunami and even man-made disasters. Building resilient cities is not a one-off effort. Instead, it is a continuous dialogue involving multiple stakeholders focusing on robust policymaking, strong administrative action agenda and positive behavioural change.
Empowering city municipalities to be the first line of mitigation and response to disasters: Most cities are struggling with challenges related to poverty, housing, education, health and transportation, which puts disaster risk resilience on a back seat. It is important for cities to have a strong institutional framework and a comprehensive climate action plan. Most cities in India still do not have a climate action plan—this makes these cities fragile and susceptible to ecological imbalance in case of a disaster. Rio de Janeiro’s ‘Resilient Rio Strategy’ focusing on disaster recovery, promotion of circular economy and citizen education is a benchmark action agenda.
Proactive planning for resilience and disaster management funding: A disaster risk resilience plan cannot be carried out until dedicated resources and a budget is allocated to the same. Funds can come from multiple sources such as city revenues, Centre/state disbursements, CSR financing and private sector partnerships. It is important to create such a fund proactively rather than ruminate over it post the occurrence of a disaster. Such contingency funds can be very useful during post-disaster recovery. For example, in the Philippines, cities allocate 5% of their local government budget to a calamity relief fund, and 70% of this allocation can be spent for preparedness and procurement of relief and rescue equipment.
Resilient critical infrastructure: Collapsed buildings and unstable structures are the leading cause of mortality during earthquakes and other natural disasters. Hence, it is critical that building codes and appropriate construction norms are adhered to while building residential structures. Apart from housing, it is particularly important to build disaster-resilient schools and healthcare facilities as schoolchildren and hospital patients are the most vulnerable at the time of a disaster. In 2005, a massive earthquake in Pakistan destroyed 8,000 schools and killed more than 17,000 children. Since then, these schools have been rebuilt and the buildings have been designed to weather disasters.
Special attention also needs to be given to a city’s critical infrastructure such as roads, airports, electrical, sewerage, and water and communication systems. Having accessible roads, rail and airports to a city is essential for seamless relief operations. Often, increased cost of risk-resilient transport network discourages city planners from building them. However, in the long run, efficient and resilient transportation systems enable cities to quickly bounce back in economic activities and also minimises rebuilding costs.
For instance, Kuala Lumper has built a $514-million storm water drain road tunnel, which allows large volumes of flood water to be diverted from the city’s financial district to a storage reservoir. This has helped in preventing seven potentially disastrous flash floods in the city, in a short span of three years. Preparing citizens to respond to situations: Adequate investment in technology and early warning systems can enable city institutions deliver warnings in a timely and effective manner. Trainings such as risk mitigation and rescue programmes need to be designed, not only for crucial city personnel such as fire rescuers, police and health professionals, but also for citizens and communities. City officials should also ensure that vulnerable sections of the society such as children, the elderly and the poor are not left out from these campaigns.
For instance, schools in Japan regularly have earthquake drills to help children react to these disasters accordingly. It is believed that these regular drills helped save many lives in the 2011 Japan earthquake.
Recovery as an opportunity to rebuild better: When a disaster strikes, it is difficult for administrators to rebuild in a short period of time. However, recovery and reconstruction gives an opportunity to rebuild cities in a safe and sustainable manner by learning from past mistakes. It is essential to include a recovery plan in a city’s disaster reduction strategy and involve all the stakeholders who are critical pillars for recovery.
While cities in India have started to move towards resilience, there is still a long way to go. A radical shift is needed in our approach towards disaster mitigation and management. Many of the initiatives are often taken immediately after a disaster strikes, instead of being planned in advance. It is imperative to launch a continuous dialogue and inculcate a sense of responsibility amongst city administrators and its citizens to build resilience in every aspect.
(Subudhi is global leader, Infrastructure Practice, and Bilgrami is senior knowledge analyst, BCG. Views are personal)