Reducing Disaster Risks by Strengthening Response Plans

Ranjini Mukherjee

India is highly prone to disasters due to its physiographic, climatic and socio-economic conditions. Nearly 58.6 per cent of the Indian landmass is prone to earthquakes of moderate to high intensity; 12 per cent of land is prone to floods and river erosion; of the 7,516 km long coastline nearly 5,700 km is prone to cyclones and tsunami; 68 per cent of the cultivatable area is vulnerable to drought, and hilly areas are at risk of landslides and avalanches, writes Ranjini Mukherjee, Disaster Risk Reduction Specialist, UN Resident Coordinator’s Office.

The intensity and frequency of the disaster have seen a surge in the past years. Floods have become an annual feature in several states with an increasing intensity than in the last decade. Because of the poorly guarded animal-human interface, India is also vulnerable to zoonotic disease outbursts. Threats of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear disasters also exist.

The Disaster Management Act of India enacted in 2005 mandates both central and state governments with a wide range of disaster management functions which include relief response, preparedness, mitigation, reconstruction and recovery. There has been a paradigm shift in the disaster management approach from relief centric disaster response to reducing disaster risks and building resilience. The National Disaster Management Policy, 2009, the Prime Minister’s 10-point agenda and the National Disaster Management Plan, 2019, promote a culture of prevention, preparedness and resilience and emphasise mainstreaming disaster risk reduction into the development planning process. The Government of India is committed to the implementation of the various priorities of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) and the related SDG targets. There is a heightened focus towards zero mortality in any disaster and mainstreaming disaster risk reduction measures across sectors to reduce disaster effects, damage and losses.

However, the rise in frequency, intensity, and scale of the disasters in the recent past (Kerala floods 2018, 2019 and 2021, Cyclone Fani, 2019; Cyclone Amphan, 2020; Uttarakhand glacial burst,2021; Uttarakhand Flash floods 2021, Jaipur floods 2021) and the shadow of COVID-19 pandemic have shown that we are living in an era of uncertainty without knowing how the hazard patterns might change over a period of time. The sixth IPCC Report, 2021 further statesthat “Climate change is already affecting every inhabited region across the globe with human influence contributing to many observed changes in weather and climate extremes”. This essentially means that we would be more unclear about the future extreme events that may hit our country and its consequences.

In this context, for achieving the SDG target 11.5 cities in India need to pay special attention to the following areas.

Understanding disaster risks and disseminating risk information up to the last mile

Risk of disasters is created when vulnerable conditions are exposed to hazards. Disaster risk is a function of hazards, vulnerabilities, exposure of vulnerabilities to hazards and available capacity or resources. Disaster risks are also interconnected, cascading, and might change over time. It is imperative that we invest in understanding disaster risks and develop a systematic approach for doing continuous risk assessments across various sectors.

Loss and damage to property after a disaster
Loss and damage to property after a disaster

The risk assessments should be further backed with risk communication packages which should be designed in a user-friendly manner and disseminated up to the last mile. This will make all stakeholders including communities risk-informed and enable them to take appropriate actions for disaster response, recovery and risk mitigation. Currently, there are gaps in the dissemination of the risk information across various levels and stakeholders. Often the Risk Assessment Reports gather dust in various offices of the government and don’t get any attention at the policy planning or programming level. It is important to ensure that all development programmes and policies are backed by appropriate risk assessments and guided through a risk management framework.

Invest in building a robust early warning system at the local level

Robust Early Warning Systems at the local level can help reduce disaster deaths significantly. Timely early warnings help the government and other stakeholders to undertake fast evacuation and effective response. India already has an established system for early warning of various hazards. However, there are gaps at the local level in interpreting and disseminating the risk information in a timely manner to the affected communities. Lack of coordination amongst the various authorities responsible for warning dissemination and the local communities often result in unwanted deaths and injuries. Increased engagement with local communities, identifying local volunteers and community networks and building their capacities can help address the existing challenges.

Build resilience of the infrastructure systems

Both Kerala floods 2018 and Cyclone Fani, 2019 resulted in significant damage and loss to the infrastructure systems. Telecom, power, housing, roads and bridges were extensively damaged due to these disaster events.

We know that the infrastructure systems are typically designed for long life cycles and during that time hazard patterns might change. Hence it is crucial to building the resilience of the infrastructure systems so that it can survive various shocks and stresses over a period of time, help reduce disaster losses and save lives. Considering the competing development priorities in India, the strategy for building resilient infrastructure may focus on criticality, redundancy, diversification, and nature-based solutions.

Building resilient infrastructure systems would require proper planning, siting, design, and maintenance. It would also require a favourable policy environment, institutional mandates, regulations, improved decision-making mechanism and appropriate financing. Private sectors and local communities are important players in building the resilience of infrastructure systems.

Promote risk-sensitive urban land use management

Urban land use management processes such as land-use planning, development control, greenfield development and urban redevelopment can play an important role in reducing disaster risks. Adoption of risk-sensitive planning approaches can help direct development away from flood plains, wetlands, steep slopes, and fault lines. The Disaster Management Act of India provides provisions for the development of local-level guidelines for risk-sensitive spatial planning, management of natural resources and disaster risk management.

However, the challenge is that many Indian cities may not have a strong institutional framework and capacities to enforce disaster and climate risk-sensitive planning measures and regulations. Currently, 65 per cent of the 7,933 urban settlements in India do not have any master plan and the cities which have Master Plans don’t always consider a risk-sensitive spatial planning approach.

Design sound Disaster Recovery Programmes to reduce disaster risks

Recovery programmes after any disaster provide opportunities to correct the mistakes made in the past and build back better. Importantly, it also presents an opportunity to reduce disaster risks. State and local governments should use recovery as an opportunity to build resilience for climate and disaster risks. The funds allocated by the 15th Finance Commission may provide some boost to the local governments for designing comprehensive disaster recovery programmes.

Disruption of infrastructure during a disaster
Disruption of infrastructure during a disaster

Provide financial protection to most vulnerable population groups and small businesses and strengthen social protection schemes to reduce disaster impacts and loss

The economic losses incurred due to disasters are also triggered by the socio-economic conditions of the population exposed to the disasters. To reduce economic losses, there is a need to explore the possibility of protecting the most vulnerable people, their assets and businesses through risk transfer mechanisms like insurance. The Government of India has launched quite a few social protection schemes leveraging on insurance solutions like Ayushman Bharat, Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY), Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojna, Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojna, Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna and Atal Pension Yojna. A similar effort could be made to provide protection to the low-income group of people in case of natural disaster for loss of livelihood and assets.

The factors that need to be considered while designing such a risk transfer solution are:

● Population groups and business types to be covered – low-income groups, small business enterprises, MSMEs, large commercial and industrial corporations.

● The hazards to be covered- natural and/or human-induced.

● Losses to be covered by insurance – for example, property damage, business interruption, livelihood costs, life, accident, liability

● The mechanism by which disaster coverage will be made available

● The pricing mechanism of insurance coverage.

The design and implementation of the various social protection schemes can be further strengthened through a climate and disaster risk-based approach. The various programmes can improve the targeting of beneficiaries by using climate and disaster risk information, adopting integrated solutions to reduce disaster risks, introducing flexibility in the programme designs so as to respond to various shocks and mobilising funds to deliver on the ground. Such a forward-looking risk-based approach will help design both ex-ante and ex-post measures to support poor households in disaster risk reduction, response and recovery.