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India must stop viewing disasters as acts of God – report

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 29 Aug 2013 12:50 GMT
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Villagers looking for higher ground navigate the floodwaters of the river Ganges after heavy rains at Patna, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar August 29, 2013. REUTERS/Krishna Murari Kishan
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NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India must stop viewing natural disasters as stand-alone acts of God or nature and recognise that its development policies are increasing the number of deaths and amount of devastation caused by such calamities, a new report says.

Written by academics, aid workers, scientists and analysts, the "India Disasters Report" says that development works carried out in pursuit of greater economic growth, such as the construction of dams and unsafe buildings, are putting people and the environment at greater risk when a disaster strikes.

It calls on the Indian government and other stakeholders to take stronger action to prepare for disasters and build a culture of "zero tolerance" regarding safety and disaster management issues.

"The report challenges the definition of disasters. The key message is that so-called natural disasters cannot be seen just as acts of God or acts of nature," said Unni Krishnan, head of disaster response for Plan International and co-editor of the report. "They are not stand-alone events. There are many factors at play even before a disaster happens and that amplify the level of destruction."

Floods, for example, can no longer be attributed solely to natural causes like heavy rain as they may often be caused by unplanned drainage and seepage channels, the report said.

Droughts are also often the result of human interventions in nature such as deforestation, misuse and overuse of water sources, industrialisation and unsustainable agricultural practices, it said. 

India is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, and many of its 1.2 billion people live in areas vulnerable to natural hazards such as floods, cyclones, droughts and earthquakes.

Around 76 percent of India's coastline is prone to cyclones and tsunamis, while 59 percent of the country is vulnerable to earthquakes, 10 percent to floods and river erosion and 68 percent to droughts.

"CLASSIC EXAMPLE"

Experts say more frequent and more intense extreme weather events caused by climate change mean that countries like India need to make it a high priority to improve their planning and reduce the potential impact of disasters before they occur, instead of focusing on the response to calamities.

For example, unprecedented rainfall in June wreaked havoc across India's northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, causing rivers and glacier lakes to overflow and triggering massive landslides – a catastrophe that many termed a "Himalayan Tsunami".

Almost 6,000 missing people are presumed dead, and the devastation has disrupted the lives of two million people – one-fifth of Uttarakhand’s population.

Environmentalists say the construction of hydro-electric dams, involving blasting tunnels through mountains to carry diverted flows of water, rampant deforestation and the spread of unregulated buildings along river banks worsened the impact of the heavy rains.

The report’s editors said the Uttarakhand disaster was a "classic example" of how poor development practices were putting at risk local communities and the sustainability of their habitats and their livelihoods.

"We are not saying that we need to stop development because development is needed, but what we are saying is that there is a better way of assessing what will be the impact of these developments and we can take precautions whereby the damage can be limited," said S. Parasuraman, director of the Tata Institute for Social Sciences and co-editor of the report.

"The roads can be made on better plains where there are no landslides, dams should be made in better locations based on proper analysis."

PURSUIT OF GROWTH

The report said India had come a long way over the past decade in dealing with disasters by instituting a national law and establishing the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

But much of the NDMA's work has focused on dealing with response, rather than risk reduction and preparedness, and the authority has, for example, developed building codes without appointing anyone to enforce them, Parasuraman said.

In an April audit, the Comptroller General said the NDMA had not only failed to finalise a national disaster management plan but had also failed to complete key projects.

These include hazard mapping for floods, landslides and earthquakes, rolling out a national school safety programme, establishing a mobile system for detecting radiation and building a nationwide disaster communication network.

The report calls for a more holistic approach to disasters, taking into account strategies such as building cyclone shelters, improving early warning signals, and integrating preparedness into everyday development policies.

"Preparedness is far more complicated because it involves looking at the nature of development that we do, the nature of the buildings we construct, the nature of changes we make to our ecosystem," Parasuraman said.

“We haven't moved from the discussion about response to preparedness and risk reduction in India because our preoccupation with growth and development doesn't allow us to get into that arena."

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