Can India be a leader in disaster risk reduction measures in Asia?
By Diya Dutta
The story of 2017 floods in India presents a grim picture of death, destruction and many million displacements. Assam has seen 2.2 million people displaced; Bihar witnessed another 2 million. Gujarat has seen 213 deaths in one of the worst floods in many years. Climate change, human induced causes such as construction, unplanned urbanisation leading to largescale deforestation and land grabs are some of the chief reasons behind the rising number of flood related natural disasters.
Rapid economic growth but lack of commitment towards risk management
Asia is the fastest growing economic region in the world at present. In the next 15 years many countries in Asia including China and India will continue to progress and generate higher national income and aim to achieve sustainable and equitable development. But rapid economic growth comes with its share of climate-related risks. There are underlying risk factors that countries in the region are struggling with. Rapid and poorly managed urbanization, natural resource exploitation, and increasing social inequalities are some of the factors that the countries in the region face. These factors are the result of either low priority or lack of capacity by the countries.
India is not above these risks. According to the United Nations’ Global Assessment Report (GAR) 2015, India loses close to USD 7 billion on an average annually due to floods alone. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), in 2015, India had the most number of people in the world exposed to the risk of flooding. Further, India has by far the most GDP exposed at USD 14.3 billion that is affected by river flood on an average per year.
Adhering to a sustainable risk reduction plan
Last year, India hosted the Asia Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Delhi. This was the first ministerial conference after the signing of the Sendai Framework. The Sendai Framework is a 15-year, voluntary, non-binding agreement which recognizes that the State has the primary role to reduce disaster risk but that responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders including local government, the private sector and other stakeholders. The Sendai Framework aims for the following outcome:
The substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries.
The purpose of the conference in Delhi was to adopt an ‘Asian Regional Plan for Implementation of the Sendai Framework’. Sustainability is at the core of this framework and it ropes in multiple stakeholders such as the state, private sector and communities within its risk reduction plan.
The challenges of reducing disaster risk in a country as vast and divergent as India are formidable. But the Government of India has put forth a National Disaster Management Plan (2016) which expresses its commitment to embrace and implement the Sendai Framework in letter and spirit. The new Plan covers all phases of disaster management from prevention and mitigation to response and recovery. It also ensures that disaster risk reduction is mainstreamed into all parts of the administration and puts forth a federal structure for implementation. The Plan addresses the four priority themes of the Sendai framework namely, understanding disaster risk, improving disaster risk governance, investing in disaster risk reduction (through structural and non-structural measures) and disaster preparedness, early warning and building back better communities in the aftermath of a disaster.
Moving beyond and focusing on flood governance
India has traditionally focused on flood protection which entails measures such as embankments, dredging rivers and bank strengthening. In a study conducted across 96 villages in Assam, Bihar, UP and Bengal it was found that these measures are cost intensive and the focus is more on construction rather than maintenance. Consequently, the measures fall into disuse and are ineffective. Shifting the focus to flood governance puts the spotlight back on flood affected people and building theirs and their communities’ resilience. Reducing vulnerability, increasing access to services and maximising productivity through optimal use of available resources are some of the key outcomes of flood governance.
Simple and sustainable measures such as community-based flood warning systems; making adequate boats available in resource-strapped flood prone areas during floods will enhance access to developmental activities during floods. Similarly, elevated toilets, ecosanitation units and elevated dugwells or tubewells with iron filters will address issues of water and sanitation that is so critical during floods. Innovative agricultural practices such as flood resistant crops, floating vegetable gardens and scientific fish farming on waterbodies and inundated land can ensure that inundation, when not avoidable, can be put to optimal use.
In short, flood governance promotes innovations and adaptations to situations, which is a cornerstone of sustainable approach to disaster risk reduction. It is evident from the Government of India’s National Disaster Management Plan that the government is taking preliminary steps in that direction. The government is putting its efforts behind community strengthening and understanding of disaster risk through education and public information, investing in disaster resilient infrastructure and committing to improved disaster preparedness and building back better recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.
Let us hope that Government of India continues its commitment to global standards on disaster risk reduction and mitigation. If successful, India can set a fitting example and be the leader on disaster risk reduction for other countries in the region to follow.