Badly prepared

Disaster preparedness should be built into development programmes

By Biswanath Dash
Published: Tuesday 15 March 2005

Badly prepared

-- The recent tsunami has again shown that India lacks an effective disaster management system. Debates over how best to create such a system have again heated up in the aftermath of the tragedy. Technological solutions to forewarn disasters as well as to reduce reaction time have also been mooted. But the debate is unlike to bear much fruit till we make two fundamental shifts. Firstly, the focus has to shift from relief to community preparedness that addresses long-term recovery. Secondly, affected communities have to be given a central role in this process.

Large disaster preparedness programmes are in place in India as well as in other developing countries for quite some time now. However, these programmes have had very limited success. This author had undertaken a survey of three states -- Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa -- to assess community preparedness for various disasters. The surveys, part of a study Indicators for disaster preparedness, proposes a new methodology to assess community preparedness for the six most frequent hazards in India -- earthquakes, cyclones, flood, droughts, fires and epidemics.

Ten parameters According to this method, community preparedness is conceptualised as consisting of ten parameters: physical safety of community members (for example earthquake resistant houses or cyclone shelters), awareness about specific hazards, organisational preparedness, infrastructure (such as road conditions, hospital), recovery ability of the community, state of physical environment (such as state of subsurface aquifers), psychological preparedness, social and cultural capital and household preparedness (such as food grains reserves).

Indicators We tried to capture these parameters through quantitative indicators such as available shelter capacities, number of trained volunteers and percentage of households who have access to formal credit services. We also took into account qualitative indicators such as hazard awareness and mitigation efforts undertaken by community members.

The study showed that there really is no effective mechanism to monitor the progress of our preparedness programmes. The practice of expert group assessment is ineffective because it depends on a select group of experts --

very often members of these groups, or their associate organisations, are involved in the design and implementation of the same programmes. This neglect assumes significance because post-tsunami there is talk of integrating disaster preparedness capabilities into planned rehabilitation programmes.

The model was field-tested in communities located in Kutch in Gujarat, Bolangir and Rajnagar in Orissa and Machlipatnam in Andhra Pradesh -- among the most disaster-prone in the country. Quite alarmingly, the community with the lowest preparedness -- Gupti panchayat in Jagatsinghpur district, Orissa -- is located very near Ersama, the site of extreme devastation by the super cyclone of 1999. Another cyclone had claimed more than 10,00 people of this community in 1971. The communities we studied in Kutch are also not any better-prepared.

More alarm An important finding of our studies was that communities better prepared in one respect -- for example physical safety -- can be ill equipped in others -- such as hazard awareness or social capital. Take the case of Maginapudi panchayat near Machlipatnam, Andhra Pradesh. The community here has services of hospitals, roads and cyclone shelters, but the groundwaters of Maginapudi are saline. So, preparedness programmes must address specific needs of communities -- and not prescribe uniform solutions. Our field study also showed that all communities have traditional mechanisms that equip them to deal with disasters. Any disaster management programme must accord recognition to such knowledge.

Often, disaster preparedness is equated with the ability to respond well to a calamity. This works well in developed countries where people have insured assets and other mechanisms that ensure smooth recovery. But communities in developing countries such as India do not have such wherewithal. So, it is important to link preparedness programmes with long-term recovery.

Biswanath Dash is a researcher at Jawharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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