India: Climate lens must for disaster management

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By T.V. Padma

There has to be closer integration between climate adaptation plans and management of disaster risks that engages local communities deeply, new research shows

Although climate change would lead to more natural disasters such as storms, cyclones, droughts and floods, the linkages between adaptation plans and disaster risk management are weak in India and the rest of South Asia, latest research shows.

At the district or village levels, climate change is often still perceived as “a distant phenomenon” and many agencies “remain unaware of the likely impacts of climate change on their areas of responsibility,” the research project from India, Nepal and Pakistan shows.

Climate change emerges “as a new type of challenge to the agencies responsible for disaster risk reduction,” as they try to juggle the responses needed at a smaller, local administrative level and wider geographical level, a report of the project’s findings in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction says.

On the one hand, climate change is a non-localised phenomenon, which presents a challenge to administrative structures and political units operating on a specific local scale or unit. On the other hand, the weather impacts vary at multiple geographical scales, even if impacts will be felt locally. “Additionally, the legal and institutional frameworks to support integration of climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR) are sorely lacking,” the report says.

Need for convergence

“Climate change and disaster management have remained two almost independent disciplines, whether you look at policies, plans, government departments, civil society organisations or academics engaged,” Anshu Sharma, co-founder of Delhi-based non-profit Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society (SEEDS), and one of the authors of the study, told “The research establishes a very close relationship between these two themes and the need for convergence between the actors in these two domains.”

“The research findings are of significance to India and South Asia,” said Mihir Bhatt, director of All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI), a non-government organisation based in Ahmedabad. “The findings tell us that India’s work on nationally determined contributions (NDCs) must be further aligned to integrate DRR in agriculture, water and forestry areas.”

Such integration will not only reduce costs of risk reduction but also the time it will take to implement NDCs, Bhatt told AIDMI’s recent work with the federal government and United Nations Development Programme on such integration also shows that cities may be first step where piloting can transform into programming.

Globally, the incidence of major natural hazards is rising and distributed unevenly. Countries in Asia and the Pacific are four times more likely than those in Africa, and 25 times more likely than those in Europe or North America, to experience disasters, the report observes.

Prone to weather-related disasters

South Asia, in particular, is prone to weather-related disasters including floods, cyclones, landslides, droughts and heat waves, in part due to its strong seasonal monsoon patterns, it says. The frequency and severity of such events are expected to increase significantly with climate change.

Besides weather uncertainties, several other factors interact in human-natural systems, such as unplanned urbanisation, high rates of population growth, persistent poverty, loss of critical environmental services and land degradation. These so-called slow onset crises further compound vulnerability to the more rapid onset climate change-triggered weather disasters, the study points out.

In South Asia particularly, with its dense populations, high levels of subsistence livelihoods, and already intensely seasonal weather, “precautionary thinking dictates building a range of climate scenarios into future planning in many sectors.” A precautionary stance would carry strong implications for infrastructure such as roads and hydropower projects, and construction sectors in South Asia, the report says.

Convergence problems

In the light of growing evidence for tight linkages between climate changes and increasing disaster risks which, in turn, impact sustainable development and poverty reduction in South Asia, several international development agencies are beginning to emphasize that effective planning should include a convergence of both CCA and DRR in the region.

The 2016 South Asia Disasters Report too recommends, among other measures, “Post disaster rehabilitation programmes must consider potential long-term events like climate change and interrelated hazards while building livelihoods and infrastructure for the communities and households.”

“As yet, however, there have been few reports of successful integration of climate concepts into development planning or disaster risk policies, and on the ground, CCA and DRR frameworks have continued to evolve in isolation,” the latest report says.

There should be a convergence between climate change and disaster risk management, said Kamaljit Bawa, one of the study’s authors and professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

“Climate change may already be increasing natural disasters. The gaps between agencies dealing with climate change and natural disasters must be bridged,” Bawa told “Consideration of climate change into disaster management will help us to pay more attention to pre-disaster planning and policies making climate change mitigation as an essential component of disaster risk management.”

Researching integration

Under a project of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), six interdisciplinary research projects in India, Nepal and Pakistan assessed, between 2012 and 2014, the degree to which climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR) were integrated during planning.

The six research projects differed in the type of locations, from coastal areas to riverine floodplains, monsoon-affected montane regions, semi-arid coastal plains, a major Himalayan watershed, and hot and cold deserts. The administrative units ranged from single villages to districts, and entire provinces.

Achieving convergence between CCA and DRR is likely to demand substantial institutional changes. The research projects identified three basic categories of needs for convergence. These include information sharing between community-based organisations and government agencies.

Other constraints include the absence of over-arching national policies and corresponding financing mechanisms to integrate the two sectors into various aspects of land-use planning; lack of capacity in many agencies to assess, interpret and apply data on climate change risks and vulnerabilities; and bottlenecks in integration of plans among and within agencies.

There are also chronic deficits in leadership and institutional capacity; the need for local autonomy in planning; and new risks directly or indirectly generated by economic growth that leads to greater urbanization.

Need for bottom-up approach

Experts say that India needs to adopt a bottom-up approach that begins with developing plans at the local level. The National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP) of India needs a rapid review to initiate and integrate such integration across all aspects, says Bhatt. AIDMI’s planning work at local level in over 69 districts and 52 cities shows that initiatives are on but national, sub-national, and local policies can help a lot.

“Institutionally, the agencies dealing with climate change (India’s environment ministry) and disasters (home ministry and National Disaster Management Authority) need to be more closely linked, through their instruments of work including the national policies and plans,” Sharma told  “Operationally, the ground-up approach organically links climate change and disaster risk reduction as a common set of issues till the district level.  Community approaches are thus critically important.”

Meanwhile, some agencies have initiated plans at local levels. Sumana Bhattacharya, one of the study’s authors and vice president, climate change, at IORA Ecological Solutions Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, and her colleagues are working on a project of the UNDP and Himachal Pradesh state government, in which the local panchayat samiti (an intermediary level of governance linking local village councils or gram panchayats with district units) will develop disaster risk reduction plans, collate them and submit to the state government. The project initially envisages working with 30 gram panchayat samitis (block level units) across four districts.

Often, when a disaster strikes, the local communities are the first responders and they should feel able to deal with the situation, Bhattacharya told Any disaster risk reduction and management plan should be a bottom-up plan, targeting the specific local needs for both climate change adaptation and disaster risk mitigation, and involving designated local, trained people, she said.

Another challenge, said Sharma, is of science diplomacy. “Research (and researchers) seems to be rather ineffective in communicating well with policymakers, media and communities towards seeing desired impacts of their findings.”

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