When the government s emergency system fails, people learn for themselves

When the government s emergency system fails, people learn for themselves   What is the lesson we have learnt from the Orissa cyclone?
The poor, as individuals, learn from each cyclone or flood and adopt measures that reduce their vulnerability. But, as far as a system of emergency management goes, we need to make more efforts to learn from each natural disaster.

After the 1993 Latur earthquake, the government realised this lacunae in our system and ordered a comprehensive study of experiences from such natural disasters. Despite this, the result of the emergency management system were no different after the cyclones in Andhra Pradesh (1997), Gujarat (1998 and 1999), and even the first cyclone in October this year in Orissa.

Do you mean the emergency management system has not learned from these cyclones?
The system has learned, but only partially. For example, after the June 9, 1998 cyclone that hit Kandla, the Gujarat administration realised the importance of effective evacuation. So when another cyclone hit the Gujarat coast on May 19, 1999, more than 40,000 vulnerable households were effectively evacuated in record time. This is remarkable, though I must mention that the deep sea fisherfolk from Diu and south Gujarat remained unwarned. This led to a loss of 400 lives.

Now what was learnt after the Gujarat experience should have been documented by the system and shared with other coastal states. It is here that we are slow. But it is never too late to learn. Even now we must quickly set up some mechanism in Orissa that takes up action-learning across non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations and government organisations active in Orissa. My understanding is that there is an interest in such a learning activity across organisations in Orissa, but soon it will be lost.

What other lessons are useful for relief and recovery efforts in Orissa?
We have realised that the link between the district administration, or say the collector, and the community is the weakest as far as the early warning system is concerned. As a result our world-class weather predicting technology can do little to save the vulnerable communities.

We have also learned that conducting disaster risk audits for industrial or infrastructure investments in vulnerable areas is important. The poor in India are vulnerable to repeated and severe natural disasters and yet our anti-poverty programmes do not address these issues.

How effective is the relief?
We don't have performance standards for relief measures and thus the quality of relief is falling. Here, we must do away with the top-to-down approach, which is expert driven, and not impose external emergency management systems on the victims. Disaster management must be localised, innovative and participatory. Communities should be actively involved in disaster risk management.

Can you elaborate?
Let the milk cooperatives in arid areas plan a fodder security system. Let the fisheries' cooperatives in coastal areas plan and manage their own early warning system. Let the self-help groups of tree planters plan landslide prevention measures. They will need resources, inputs and institutions that support them. But, in the end, they will be able to face and survive droughts, floods, cyclones or landslides. There are examples of these innovations in India, working and viable. And again, we need to learn from them.

Is it being done in other countries?
Yes. In Bangladesh, for example, CARE, a non-governmental organisation, is introducing cyclone preparedness activities among its fisheries groups. In China, the local governments are devising a suitable local insurance net to cover losses. In the US, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is working with small businesses to plan for disaster mitigation and recovery.

What will the impact of the Orissa cyclone be on the local environment?
The impact will be long-lasting. The water sources are already contaminated. The soil is damaged. The coastal ecosystem is destroyed and will ruin the livelihoods of coastal communities. Further, relief camps and new rehabilitation sites can cause environmental damage if adequate care is not taken. The need for fuel may further destroy vegetation around camp sites.

What kind of policy initiative do we need immediately?
We must set up a national commission on natural disasters to completely revamp our relief, rehabilitation and recovery administration and orient it towards prevention and preparedness at community level.

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