Disaster Management – Inculcating a Culture of Preparedness

A CCTV network across Mumbai with a coordinated crisis management cell during emergency, colour coded alerts and a media/communication strategy, are just some of the suggestions that have come forth post 26/11, the Mumbai siege. Notwithstanding the excellent work done by our security forces, many lives could have been saved by the availability of proper equipment, communications network and a well-coordinated response.

01 January, 2009 Special Reports, Governance
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A CCTV network across Mumbai with a coordinated crisis management cell during emergency, colour coded alerts and a media/communication strategy, are just some of the suggestions that have come forth post 26/11, the Mumbai siege. Notwithstanding the excellent work done by our security forces, many lives could have been saved by the availability of proper equipment, communications network and a well-coordinated response.

Earlier, the super cyclone in Orissa in October 1999 and the Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat in January 2001 had already underscored the need to adopt a multi-dimensional endeavour involving diverse scientific, engineering, financial and social processes; the need to adopt multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral approach and incorporation of risk reduction in the developmental plans and strategies. But as we grappled with the Kosi flooding in 2008, questions were again being asked about the level of understanding required to tackle disasters, natural or manmade, in India. And Mumbai raised a barrage of questions!

It is plain to see that disasters are also striking with increasing regularity and tenacity. Yet in most places, they are treated more as a disruption than a foreseeable obstacle to progress. Urgently needed is a change in approach. It is not enough to merely think of relief after a disaster strikes. Policy leaders, both national and local, must also anticipate and deal with them ahead of time.

For such a shift in approach, there needs to be a change in attitude.  We must recognise the huge impact climate change is having on weather patterns, hydro-meteorological phenomena, and the frequency, intensity and unpredictability of natural hazards. Without mitigation, these calamities will leave the nation and its people ever more vulnerable to devastation.  Disaster management occupies a specially important place in this country’s policy framework as it is the poor and the under-privileged who are worst affected on account of calamities/disasters. The statistics are alarming (see box – Alarming Statistics). Terror attacks only compound the nature of response.

Over the past couple of years, the Government of India has admittedly brought about a paradigm shift in the approach to disaster management. The new approach proceeds from the conviction that development cannot be sustainable unless disaster mitigation is built into the development process. Another cornerstone of the approach is that mitigation has to be multi-disciplinary spanning across all sectors of development. The new policy also emanates from the belief that investments in mitigation are much more cost effective than expenditure on relief and rehabilitation.

It is important to note that in India, it is the State Governments that are primarily responsible for disaster management including prevention and mitigation, while the Government of India provides assistance where necessary as per the norms laid down from time to time and proposes that this overall framework may continue. However, since response to a disaster requires coordination of resources available across all the Departments of the Government, the policy mandates that the Central Government will, in conjunction with the State Governments, seek to ensure that such a coordination mechanism is laid down through an appropriate chain of command so that mobilisation of resources is facilitated. (See box on Key Features of National Policy on Disaster Management.)

Maxine Olson, UN Resident Coordinator & Resident Representative, UNDP, says “in the last few years, India has come a very long way in terms of looking at disaster risk management and the work that is possible to do. Establishment of the National Disaster Management Authority as well as the State Disaster Management Authorities, the Institute for Disaster Management are all examples. There is much more to do and one of the things is insurance. Spreading the risk is needed and ways to spread risk should be there so that when disaster happens people can be adequately reimbursed for what has happened to them. It will be far easier to recover after those effects.”

Community Involvement

Whether a disaster is major or minor of national or local proportion, it is the community or village level population that suffers most due to its adverse impact.  They use coping and survival strategies to face and respond to the situation long before outside help from NGOs or the government arrives.

The goal of any disaster management initiative is to build a disaster resistant/resilient community equipped with safer living and sustainable livelihoods to serve its own development purposes. The community is also the first responder in any disaster situation, thereby emphasising the need for community level initiatives in managing disasters.

Maxine Olsen describes an ideal mock drill exercise being undertaken under the UNDP-DRM Programme in India, one of the largest such in the world. “Every one in the communities in India must have the knowledge to be able to respond to the disaster and help each other. This is something that is extremely important. At a disaster risk programmes in one of the villages in Orissa, there was a mock disaster and people grabbed their roles. There were people who were assigned with stretchers, people who knew how to do CPR, people who knew how to get people out of the water, people who are responsible for finding old people, people who would not be able to get out of their houses quickly in the event of an earthquake. They were well organised and nothing can substitute for it. The importance of that is well appreciated but work needs to go and the worst part of disasters is that they don’t happen every day and so people forget, people don’t prepare, people don’t practice, so it is the responsibility of the professionals to be sure that indeed those things do happen so that people know exactly what to do when the time comes.” (See Box: UNDP-DRM Programme.)

Another example of disaster-preparedness effort comes from Andhra Pradesh, in which groups of 15 families were selected to work towards disaster mitigation. Community solidarity helped build their resilience and ensured that they did not remain merely passive victims. They were taught to swim, to be in constant touch with each other, and to rush to shelters at the first signs of an impending cyclone so as not to be swept away. These may be small interventions, but they play a crucial role in saving lives.

Here, local bodies, i.e. the Panchayati Raj Institutions, can be effective instruments in tackling disasters through early warning system, relief distribution, providing shelter to the victims, medical assistance, etc.

Uday Kumar Varma, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, points out that research has shown that during earthquakes and volcano ruptures and other related disasters, the one item that people picked up from their homes to escape with is a radio. Community Radio as distinct from public service broadcasting serves to bring small communities together, focuses on common man’s day to day concerns and helps in realising local aspirations. It aims to contribute to the lives of the local community by creation of content by the people and for the people of the community.  Besides, it plays an active role in the information dissemination amongst the community thereby creating awareness and social responsibility.

Capacity building for effective disaster management, therefore, needs to be grounded and linked to the community and local level responders on the one hand and also to the institutional mechanisms of the state and the country on the other.

The Development Perspective

With the kind of economic losses and developmental setbacks that the country has been suffering year after year, the development process needs to be sensitive towards disaster prevention and mitigation aspects. There is, thus, need to look at disasters from a development perspective as well.

As N Vinod Chandra Menon, Member, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), pointed out in the session on disaster management, “each year natural disasters result in thousands of deaths, injuries, loss of property and infrastructure as well as substantial economic loses. According to the World Bank, 97 per cent of the disaster related deaths occur in developing countries. And India is no exception to this trend.”

India is spending almost 2 per cent of the GDP every year in terms of post disaster relief, running into hundreds of crores.  During 2005 to 2010, the 12th Finance Commission has recommended that funds to the tune of Rs 213.33 billion be set aside for post disaster relief is. “You can see that it is actually becoming a colossal drain on the consolidation of all the accumulated critical infrastructure and public assets and amenities which we are creating, suddenly it all gets wiped out as we saw in Gujarat earthquake,” he said.

The extent to which a population is affected by a calamity does not purely lie in the physical components of vulnerability, but is contextual also to the prevailing social and economic conditions and its consequential effect on human activities within a given society. Research in areas affected by earthquakes indicates that single parent families, women, handicapped people, children and the aged are particularly vulnerable social groups. The geophysical setting with unplanned and inadequate developmental activity is a cause for increased losses during disasters. In the case of India, the contribution of over-population to high population density, which in turn results in escalating losses, deserves to be noted. This factor sometimes tends to be as important as physical vulnerability attributed to geography and infrastructure alone.

Another challenge that India will be facing as the years go by is urbanisation. This is particularly so in earthquake-prone areas. As the population becomes more of an urban population, the risks for disaster become greater particularly in the case of an earthquake. As buildings get bigger they get heavier. Indeed it needs to be built in such a way that they are earthquake resistant and so it is extremely difficult to do retrofitting. There is quite a bit of work that goes on in terms of trying to raise the awareness of how indeed you can retrofit buildings and be earthquake resistant and that is an extremely important work. The best, of course, is to build them well in the beginning.

In the last few years we had tragic examples in the Kashmir earthquake of what happens when schools are not built well. So the importance lies in being able to build and to get technologies that are earthquake resistant. Traditional methods of construction are better and more resistant than concrete slab and so the importance of using traditional techniques in such a way that they are actually protecting people is also something that is there.

Key action areas must encompass the following:

  • Develop a better understanding of the depth and extent of disaster hazards and vulnerability.
  • Use the best available data and risk analysis as a basis for policy decisions.
  • Incorporate disaster risk in regulatory procedures, keeping in mind factors that increase vulnerability, Such as dense urban growth in earthquake-prone areas.
  • Include disaster risk assessment as an integral part of development planning — particularly in            post-disaster reconstruction efforts.

For instance, flood conditions emerge due to the inadequate capacity of the rivers to contain the high flow brought down from the upper catchments due to heavy rainfall. Accumulation of water resulting from heavy spells of rains over areas with poor drainage system can also cause flooding. The heavy precipitation comes with the problems of sediment deposition, drainage, congestion and synchronisation of river floods with sea tides in the coastal areas.

Various measures are being taken by the concerned government officials at all levels to prevent heavy loss of life and property during the crisis. To minimise flood damage the basic approach is to prevent floodwaters from reaching the damage vulnerable centres. The Flood Forecasting Network of CWC sends information to all the major flood prone inter-State river basins in the country. Information from satellites is used for mapping and monitoring flood prone areas. The Central Water Commission (CWC) under the Ministry of Water Resources issues flood forecasts and warnings. A flood alert is issued well in advance of the actual arrival of floods to enable people to take appropriate measures and shift to safer places. But, the pictures of Kosi tell us a different story.

 Apart from an effective disaster response system, it is important to have a good flood prevention and mitigation system to achieve objectives of vulnerability reduction. State governments have come forward to take up mitigation programmes like construction of raised platforms, embankments, flood walls, sea walls along the various flood prone rivers, etc. Despite this, floods continue to be a menace primarily because of the huge quantum of silt, which has raised the bed level in many rivers.

Key Features of National Policy on Disaster Management 

  • A holistic and pro-active approach for prevention, mitigation and preparedness will be adopted  for disaster management.
  • Each Ministry/Department of the Central/State Government will set apart an appropriate quantum of funds under the Plan for specific schemes/projects addressing vulnerability reduction and preparedness.
  • Where there is a shelf of projects, projects addressing mitigation will be given priority. Mitigation measures shall be built into the ongoing schemes/programmes
  • Each project in a hazard prone area will have mitigation as an essential term of reference. The project report will include a statement as to how the project addresses vulnerability reduction.
  • Community involvement and awareness generation, particularly that of the vulnerable segments of population and women has been emphasised as necessary for sustainable disaster risk reduction. This is a critical component of the policy since communities are the first responders to disasters and, therefore, unless they are empowered and made capable of managing disasters,any amount of external support cannot lead to optimal results.
  • There will be close interaction with the corporate sector, NGOs and the media in the national efforts for disaster prevention/vulnerability reduction.
  • Institutional structures/appropriate chain of command will be built and appropriate training given to disaster managers at various levels to ensure coordinated and quick response at all levels;and development of inter-State arrangements for sharing of resources during emergencies.
  • A culture of planning and preparedness is to be inculcated at all levels for capacity building measures.
  • Standard operating procedures and disaster management plans at state and district levels as well as by relevant central government departments for handling specific disasters will be laid down.
  • Construction designs must correspond to the requirements as laid down in relevant Indian Standards.
  • All lifeline buildings in seismic zones III, IV & V – hospitals, railway stations, airports/airport control towers, fire station buildings, bus stands major administrative centres will need to be evaluated and, if necessary, retro-fitted.
  • The existing relief codes in the States will be revised to develop them into disaster management codes/manuals for institutionalising the planning process with particular attention to mitigation and preparedness.

Technology an Enabler

The entire disaster mitigation gameplan must necessarily be anchored to frontline research and development in a holistic mode. State-of-the art technologies available worldwide need to be made available in India for upgradation of the disaster management system; at the same time, dedicated research activities should be encouraged, in all frontier areas related to disasters like biological, space applications, information technology, nuclear radiation etc., for a continuous flow of high quality basic information for sound disaster management planning.

According to Robin Davis, Head International Development, SunGard Public Sector, emergency management activities can be are grouped into three phases. These are related by time and function to all types of emergencies and disasters. These phases are also related to each other and each involves different types of skills.  “In the pre-event phase, contingency plans are created and strategy for responding is made… we have to have a strategy for responding, know what we have available and simulate and rehearse where possible. For the response phase, we want to manage the event, lock the activities, know who is where, make informed decisions, whilst continually monitoring what is going on. Contingency and fallback plans can be activated as needed. Sensors in the field such as water height, wind, chemical, earthquake monitoring equipment are placed which can detect what is going on and of course CCTV cameras can display the live pictures.  For the evaluation phase after the event, we want to collate event all of the debrief reports are collected.  We want to understand and learn what happened and why so that hopefully we can avoid it next time. All of these phases depend on data from a variety of sources. The appropriate data has to be gathered, organised, and displayed logically to determine the size and scope of emergency management programmes.  During an actual emergency, it is critical to have the right data at the right time displayed logically to respond and take appropriate action.”

Technology is an enabler to ensuring more efficient use of these resources providing faster responses and through inter-operability of all parties attending the incident. Up-to-date knowledge is the key to saving lives when these incidents happen. With all of these emergency services in one place, the need for a reliable communications and efficient capability to integrate communications in the control room is required. “Resources, action plans, and contingencies can all be preloaded so that when a disaster occurs right people can be in the right place at the right time and the control room and the commanders can be constantly updated and informed decisions can be made quickly on what to do next,” says Robin Davis.

Today, India’s tsunami early warning system is one of the most outstanding examples of the commitment and dedication of the scientific community to the cause. It also represents how technology can be used to enable the disaster management both in terms of preparedness and in terms of response.

Shailesh Nayak, Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, the architect of the Tsunami Early Warning System and former Director of INCOIS, the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Systems in Hyderabad, says “Information sharing always calls for inter-operable and dependable emergency communication system and the lack of this type of a coherent emergency communication system is a critical security and emergency response problem. Here the inter-operability refers to the ability of emergency response officials to share information via voice and data signals on demand.”

Prevention, Preparation and Planning

In this changed situation, we need to go beyond emergency relief and recovery to emphasise mitigation and adaptation too.   But what can be done concretely? Three areas deserve attention – prevention, preparation and planning.

Prevention also involves decisions on human settlements and on building standards.  Experience in the US or India tell us that stronger flood protection systems are a critical necessity, including monitoring of levees, their repair and maintenance.  At times, the problem is less of a natural calamity than poor management, inadequate maintenance and inaction – leading to situations of disasters waiting to happen.

Preparation importantly includes investment in early warning systems, including across neighbouring nations.  In Bangladesh in the early 1970s, a cyclone killed more than 300,000 people. But after the country put in an extensive early warning system, a recent cyclone of similar intensity took 3,000, not 300,000, lives. Preparation also involves risk transfer mechanisms, including insurance schemes, woefully lacking in many countries.

Planning disaster management is the other area of action. Stronger coordination is needed across different levels of government, and with non-government actors and communities. Government units need management capacity, financial resources and information. Calamity funds are almost always inadequate to address a disaster, especially its prevention phase.

Essential is institutional accountability for disaster management, from ensuring certified standards and maintenance to the provision of disaster relief and reconstruction. Not only do local and central governments need to work hand in hand, but neighbouring nations, such as those in South Asia, need to be on the same page on common solutions, for example, in establishing strategically identified and well-managed infrastructure.

In essence, countries have often viewed efforts to mitigate natural disasters as a digression of resources from the priority for economic growth.   But the new reality indicates quite the opposite.  Unless preventive and precautionary measures are taken to reduce the risk of terror attacks or natural disasters, sustained growth will not be possible.

There is clear need to integrate disaster risk reduction into sustainable development policies and planning, as well as strengthen institutions that help communities build greater resilience to disasters. As Maxine Olsen said, “India has moved from the culture of response to one which is about preparedness manag-ement and surely that is going to be something that will stand India in very good stead in the years ahead.”

What is required is a “common mission critical communications network,” says Nayak. The States are being persuaded to set up control rooms/emergency operations centres at the state and district level. Assistance for construction and purchase of equipment for control rooms is being provided by the Centre. The control rooms, which will function round the clock, will be composite control rooms to look after law and order issues as well as disaster management. Equipment are also being provided for these control rooms under the disaster risk management programme. Many states have already moved forward on this front. (See box on States Taking Action).

The state governments have set up state crisis management groups headed by chief secretaries, institutes of relief commissioners and state/district contingency plans. There is a Calamity Relief Fund (CRF) for each state. 75 per cent of the CRF is contributed by the central government and the rest contributed by the various state governments. But we need basic communication equipment for early community warning; mobile emergency health units and decentralised mobile power suppliers for sudden disasters, apart from other issues.

Information and training on ways to better respond to and mitigate disasters to the responders go a long way in building the capacity and resilience of the country to reduce and prevent disasters. Training is an integral part of capacity building as trained personnel respond much better to different disasters and appreciate the need for preventive measures. Hannu Rantanen, Head Instructor, Emergency Services College, Finland, feels the ability to promote networking and coordinating is essential for the success of emergency response.  “Also at the time of receiving the early warning, the role of a common emergency response centre is often important in making risk assessments and deciding the proper response.”

Mumbai, unlike any western city of similar scale, had no specially-trained emergency response team or a crisis-management centre with an established drill to deal with a terrorist assault. In this, it was not exceptional: no Indian city has any crisis management protocol in place.

It is crucial that in the event of some form of disaster, whether it be a terrorist attack, earthquake, flood or a major fire, that all of the emergency services can work in tandem with each other. To make this possible there are frequent disaster management role plays, for example there can be a mock terrorist attack with numerous injuries and fatalities. The inevitable call to the emergency services will be made and then all of the pre-disaster planning will come into play.

The emergency response is not only in actions but information management as well. Today’s emergency responders need and deserve communications tools and access to information so they can provide first class all hazard management and response. This is not a technology issue.  It is not just purchasing the right technology, it is building up a new approach and looking at the needs of the organisations.

So the essential component needed to enable such flexible communications is defining the actual user needs as well as policies and protocols to determine the rules for using the capabilities of the system. As Hannu Rantanen puts it, “you can always purchase the radio system but you have to make it into a communication system.”

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