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Building Resilience: India's Response to the Growing Threat of Natural Disasters

Ramendra Verma
Ramendra Verma
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As global leaders engage in climate negotiations and commit to achieving net-zero emissions, residents in cities like Kerala and Chennai brace for the approaching monsoons, fearing the threat of floods. While Kerala and Chennai often dominate the headlines, numerous Indian cities face similar vulnerabilities to natural disasters, albeit to varying degrees. 

Since 1990, India has witnessed the third-highest number of natural disasters, trailing behind only the United States and China. The country has seen 764 natural disasters since 1900, most of which were floods and storms, as per the SBI report. From 1900 to 2000, India witnessed 402 events, and from 2001-2022, about 361 such events occurred. The past decade itself bears witness to the devastating toll by floods in Kashmir (2014), Uttarakhand (2013), and Assam, with hundreds of lives lost, massive economic costs incurred, and untold suffering endured. 

Multiple factors exacerbate flood challenges. Mismanaged dam systems and weak communication infrastructure create a complex situation, further worsened by recent meteorological trends. Urbanisation and rapid infrastructure expansion disrupt natural drainage processes, increasing flood risks. The aftermath of floods is further compounded by debris accumulation, posing significant environmental and logistical hurdles during recovery efforts.

While some might view these floods as anomalies, the reality is that inadequate infrastructure and the limited resilience of Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) leave cities constantly at risk. The northeastern region, for instance, grapples with floods year after year. In 2023, an active monsoon triggered heavy rains across the Brahmaputra valley, displacing thousands and washing away highways. Climate change likely intensified the rainfall, but human activities like deforestation and floodplain encroachment worsened the impact.

Learning from the past, building for the future

Understanding past responses is crucial to informing future actions and protecting other cities. In response to the 2018 floods, the Kerala government launched the 'Rebuild Kerala Initiative' (RKI). This comprehensive program aims to bolster the state's resilience through climate-resilient and sustainable development practices. Initiatives include flood susceptibility maps, establishing civil defense forces, and deploying digital technologies for early warning systems. Collaboration with international organisations like the World Bank further strengthens Kerala's capacity to withstand economic shocks and develop sustainable agriculture and climate-resilient infrastructure.

Odisha provides another successful example. After the devastating Super Cyclone in 1999, the state government implemented robust disaster management mechanisms. This included setting up the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (a national first), district-level planning committees, an early warning system, and building pucca houses in coastal areas. Their recent Early Warning Dissemination System (EWDS) further strengthens communication during disasters. Odisha's success, including their management of Cyclone Phailin in 2013, is now a model for other states.

In 2018, India adopted the post-disaster needs assessment (PDNA) tool for the first time, used globally since 2008. This international framework helps evaluate financial and social costs of disasters, currently being used in eight flood-prone states. Currently, this international framework is being used to evaluate the financial and social cost of local disasters in eight states in India - Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha and Meghalaya.

A Multi-Pronged Approach to Flood Mitigation

While Kerala and Chennai's experiences provide valuable insights, a more comprehensive approach is needed. We must develop disaster planning frameworks tailored to all flood-prone regions across India.

The path to resilience begins with robust early warning systems. Leveraging modern technology like IoT sensors can enhance these systems, providing timely alerts and crucial insights. Training programs for meteorological personnel and disaster management officials, alongside community-based early warning systems, are all essential. Chennai's EWDS, utilising automated weather stations and river level sensors, demonstrates a successful approach.

Building resilient infrastructure is equally important. Flood-resistant buildings and "sponge cities" that absorb rainwater are crucial for areas like Kerala. Additionally, analysing and mapping risk zones is vital. These zones can then be utilised for stormwater drainage, water bodies, catchment areas, and forest cover, promoting climate-resilient urban planning. Integrating rivers and water bodies into urban plans can also help mitigate flood risks. Kerala's watershed management projects to restore natural drainage and create green spaces are a good example.

To effectively mitigate flood risks, a crucial first step is identifying vulnerable areas. By analysing and mapping risk zones, particularly low-lying areas and landslide-prone regions near rivers and coastlines, authorities can prioritise actions. These risk maps can then inform urban planning and policymaking, promoting climate resilience. This includes utilising identified zones for stormwater drainage, water bodies, catchment areas, and forest cover. Additionally, integrating existing rivers and water bodies into urban plans not only preserves ecological functions but also helps mitigate flood risks. Kerala's watershed management projects exemplify this approach, restoring natural drainage systems and creating green spaces in flood-prone areas to improve water absorption.

Regular mock drills and training sessions educate residents about evacuation procedures and emergency response protocols. Disaster preparedness plans, including hazard mapping exercises, and public awareness campaigns are crucial for building community resilience.

In conclusion, the time for action is now. Historically, we have taken an emergency response approach to disasters only after an earthquake leveled buildings and towns or floods submerged villages. Little was done to reduce risk. While responding to disasters is obviously necessary, a shift in emphasis toward risk reduction can help mitigate damage and loss of life, and it also makes a lot of economic sense.