Disaster preparedness needs to permeate our consciousness

The Uttarakhand tragedy needs to be understood in its entirety. Natural river courses and other drains seldom respect human-made concrete, stone or tar structures. On the contrary, it must be the other way about. We must keep habitation out of the expected and known ways of the occurrence of natural phenomena.

Having worked during almost all the major disasters in South Asia between the Bangladesh floods of 1988 and the tsunami of 2004, I have learnt that people in general, and the poor in particular, will live and pursue their livelihood in the most dangerous of locations and situations.

In the case of the Uttarakhand disaster, we now have all the analysis and narratives about what happened, what really could have been done before, during and after the mélange of rain, flood and mud overtook the collective lives of thousands of people.

We know that scores of hotels and other buildings had been built in violation right on the flood courses of rivers rapidly flowing across steep gradients. We know that the timber mafia, the stone mafia and the construction mafia made the region far more vulnerable by taking away humungous quantities of wood, stone, sand and other materials. We also know now that greedy tour operators colluded with equally greedy hotel owners to disregard the actual carrying capacity of the state’s roads, transportation and dwelling units.

Most astonishingly, we know that advance weather forecasts and flood and landslide warnings were issued by the meteorology department. Officials, leaders and other responsible people were informed about the prediction of widespread heavy rain. Alerts were issued for halting the yatras to the Chaar Dhams for four days and for moving the pilgrims already in the Chaar Dhams to safer locations. Did these warnings fall on deaf ears?

Although it would seem that such was the case, we know now that the warnings were received and read. What then was the matter? The officials and the others responsible for responding to disasters and in charge of protecting and saving lives knew there was a drill to be followed. But it is evident they did not know when or how to kick it in.

Inadequate training or the lack of it may turn out to be the big gaping hole that let slip a preventive response. It was widely believed that such warnings of heavy rain were routine and nothing really happened most of the time to cause panic.

Oddly and simply enough it is all about training. Each and every resident of Uttarakhand, permanent or transient, official or ordinary citizen, must be exposed to appropriate and adequate disaster preparedness and response training. Training must be so good that even if woken from sleep, a response should begin at once.

In a disaster prone and ecologically fragile habitat, expect the unexpected to happen. Community level preparedness and response training need to become the backbone of a statewide disaster management strategy. For the governing apparatus, repeated trainings — at least three a year — must be mandatory. Disaster preparedness and response must permeate our very consciousness.

(02.07.2013 – Gurinder Kaur, now on the board of Voluntary Action Network India, has worked for Oxfam and has first hand experience in disaster preparedness and relief and rehabilitation. The views expresssed are personal. She can be reached on [email protected])

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