COVID-19, floods and landslides: What Uttarakhand needs to brace for

An above-normal monsoon, as predicted by IMD, may cause the state to experience interweaving challenges of flooding or landslide events  

By Neha Yadav
Published: Tuesday 16 June 2020
Flash floods in Uttarakhand in 2012. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The monsoon season and the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) may present unique challenges for Uttarakhand. The state, in the northwest Himalayan region, has an exceptionally fragile landscape susceptible to natural calamities. 

Seven years since the Kedarnath flash floods, the memories are still fresh. The disaster took place on 16-17 June, 2013, and was one of India’s worst natural disasters. The state continues to remain severely prone to earthquakes, landslides, flash floods and forest fires.

“It’s difficult to even think about handling a natural calamity when we’re already dealing with a pandemic. We need to accept that times are tougher than usual,” Tulsa Chaudhary, assistant nursing superintendent, Doon Hospital, Dehradun, said in a telephonic conversation.

The spread of the virus SARS-CoV-2 is prompting families to stay at home and avoid community gatherings. Any incident of cloud burst or flash flood may require them to act differently; they will need to evacuate and move to a safe shelter.

According to India Meteorological Department (IMD):

Southwest monsoon seasonal rainfall over the country as a whole is likely to be 102 per cent of the long period average (LPA) with a model error of ± 4 per cent. Possibility of development of weak La Nina conditions in the later part of the monsoon season. Region-wise, the seasonal rainfall is likely to be 107 per cent of LPA over northwest India, with a model error of ± 8 per cent.

According to the data, the country received 31 per cent more rainfall as compared to last year so far; northwest India received 19 per cent more precipitation.

“Nainital has the second-highest number of active COVID-19 cases in the state. We want people and the government to prepare well for extreme weather events,” said Harendra Asgola, gram pradhan, Bametabangar Keshav village.

Dealing efficiently with the disaster is essential, he said. He added that chalking out a disaster preparedness plan, emergency routes and arranging shelters is challenging enough without bearing in mind social distancing and other safety measures to avoid risk spreading or contracting the virus.

Essential health services are already collapsing under the weight of the pandemic. Government employees are burdened, disaster response teams stressed and other supporting staff overworked and anxious.

An above-normal monsoon, as predicted by IMD, has presented a grim picture of the state that may face interweaving challenges of flooding or landslide events.

When it comes to disaster preparadeness, it may be harder to get items to replenish basic emergency supply kits due to supply chain constraints. Disaster experts have recommended stockpiling non-perishable food, water and medical supplies. They also suggested adding to the emergency kit soaps, hand sanitizer and at least two masks to combat COVID-19.

Current disaster management plans and guidelines are not designed to manage biological and natural disasters at the same time.

According to National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) guidelines, the biological disasters response is led by the central government; the primary responsibility to manage flood-related disasters lies with states. The situation demands that India must start preparing to manage dual disasters.

Kamal Kishore, a senior official at NDMA and tasked with COVID-19 response, spelt out the changing approaches to disaster preparedness in a wide-ranging webinar ‘Combating the Dual Challenges of Climate-related Disasters and COVID-19’, organised by the United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

He stressed on the necessity to minimise the burden on hospitals by efficiently treating people at the community level, whenever possible, and strengthening the preparedness and capacity of hospitals to ensure its function in response to extreme weather events.

For the mountain state, it is necessary to identify districts that are already vulnerable and susceptible to disasters. Several migrant workers who returned home in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic belong to remote villages in the upper reaches of the mountain.

The prime concern during a dual crisis is to accommodate the disaster-affected population in small groups to reduce contact and risk of virus spread. For emergency team members, new guidelines should be prepared in accordance with state and local health units, which should observe people for symptoms, providing separate shelters for community people with symptoms; separate shelters for other residents; and testing staff and volunteers.

In addition to continuing to practise social distancing, frequent hand washing and use of mask should be reinforced.

Colonel Sanjay Srivastava, chairman, Climate Resilient Observing Systems Promotion Council, said it is important to protect frontline workers and support local action. Outreach to the community is the biggest challenge, he said.

Experts acknowledged that if a disaster happened to break down the infrastructure and communication, which is typical for the mountain state, some prominent challenges may include a shortage of masks or testing supplies and difficulties in transporting people requiring hospitalisation.

Hospitals are another concern — in some areas, government health facilities are nearing or have reached full capacity. A significant extreme event can damage the infrastructure and power source necessary for oxygen supply and ventilators, compromising the emergency medical assistance.

India needs to brace for the most significant challenge in the coming months — floods can be anticipated to force evacuation of people. At the same time, COVID-19 remains a persistent threat.

The emergency management agencies already engaged in pandemic response have to blend their efforts at the state and community level while simultaneously preparing for the monsoon season. Good coordination between local authorities, emergency staff and public health experts can help in efficient management of the disaster.

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