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India: Build resilient towns to avoid loss during disasters

Source(s):  United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction - Regional Office for Asia and Pacific (UNISDR AP)

Today marks the anniversary of the 1999 Super Cyclone that killed almost 10,000 people and washed away decades of development in the Indian State of Odisha. Each year since the disaster, Odisha denotes 29 October as National Day for Disaster Reduction. This year’s event has added resonance as it comes days after Cyclone Phailin caused widespread devastation in Odisha. In today’s edition of The Pioneer, the second oldest English newspaper in India and one of the country’s leading publications, Dr PIYUSH RANJAN ROUT, an Advocate for UNISDR’s Making Cities Resilient Campaign and cofounder of the Local Governance Network in India, says Odisha’s disaster management has improved dramatically but more still needs to be done. An edited abstract appears below.

Odisha has 480km of coastline, from Baleswar in the north to Ganjam in the south, drained by six peninsular river systems: Subarnarekha, Budhabalang, Brahmani, Baitarani, Mahanadi, Rushikulya and their tributaries.

The area is home to some of the State’s largest urban pockets, which are also exposed to some of the worst hazards, including cyclones, floods, earthquakes and sea erosion. Over the last decade, the State has faced one type of disaster or another every year.

Between 1891 and 2000, according to the Indian Meteorological Department, 98 cyclones have crossed the Odisha coast. This is more than West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat or Kerala.

Yet despite this, coastal Odisha’s urban areas continue to absorb more rural populations coming either in search of a job or better living.

Very little has been done to accommodate this growing urbanised population into planned and safer areas. This is not because the State lacks the will but because of obstacles to meet the needed expenditure. As a result, over the years Odisha has continued building more temporary evacuation centres in the forms of schools, colleges and cyclone shelters.

Drawing on the recent experience of Phailin, the question that comes to mind is did our towns demonstrate effective disaster management systems or are these still being developed? The answer, perhaps, is that our towns are still learning.

The lesson that every town needs to accept is that communities reflected a greater degree of resilience. Some bounced back in as little as 24 hours but often did not receive the expected support from the systems of governance.

In some cases, towns are still far from restoring power distribution, water supplies, garbage collection and other services.

It is worth wondering why disasters have not yet become a part of the image and psyche of our society when we face disaster so frequently, particularly during this time of rapid urbanisation.

Perhaps, Phailin is a wake-up call for a State such as Odisha, even though it has rightly been applauded by the World Bank and United Nations for its successful mass evacuation ahead of the recent cyclone. But at the same time, our towns need to improve several aspects of their disaster management.

A resilient town can address these issues with proper plans of action to protect its people from disasters, even in areas that are vulnerable to hazards.

As towns continue to grow, marginal land around flood plains, river beds or industrial factories are often used by the urban poor or middle income families for building houses, which make them vulnerable to disasters. Conventional solutions do exist for disaster mitigation in developed countries but are not easily applicable to the urban poor.

More importantly, building codes, zoning measures and urban planning techniques, for example, are difficult to enforce when people occupy land illegally or do construction by flouting rules.

After Phailin, it is now time to rebuild. Instead of a rigid land use plan, every town should focus instead on having people-centric land use. This should be understandable to both rich and poor communities. It should focus on early recovery that restores ecosystems and habitats with the active engagement of affected people, experts, volunteers, and the private sector.

At the same time, the Government machinery must commit itself to protecting communities from future disasters. It is also time for the State to think of its reconstruction phase so that its focus gradually shifts towards reducing economic and infrastructure loss in future disasters.

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  • Publication date 29 Oct 2013

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