Natural disasters: why are we always so unprepared?

Government agencies merely shift blame but take no action to plan and prepare ahead

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Army evacuating pilgrims from Gaurikund post Uttarakhand floods

Natural disasters strike without notice. With changing climate, fear of extreme rain, tropical cyclones and variable weather events will now intensify—all these will make our world even more vulnerable and more hazardous. The question is why civilian India remains so unprepared to deal with disasters—to forewarn people; to handle the crisis and to rehabilitate the affected.

Every time we have a natural disaster, exacerbated by human mismanagement of the environment, we are caught on the wrong foot. Worse, government agencies make every possible excuse to shift blame. In all this, we lose precious human lives. Take the case of Uttarakhand floods.

We know that Himalaya, the world’s youngest mountain range, is lashed by heavy rains and prone to landslides and flash floods. In addition, it is located in a highly seismic zone, which makes the ecologically sensitive region very vulnerable. We know this; and each year, this region witnesses disasters—landslides to earthquakes—of increasing ferocity and certainty. Therefore, clearly, this is a disaster hot spot, which needed attention and focus.

But none came its way. Disaster management demands, firstly, scientific knowledge to understand and map our vulnerability. It is easy for the agencies like the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA)—set up post 2004 tsunami—to glibly talk about a new early warning system. But the fact is that we do little to plan and prepare ahead. After all, predicting extreme rainfall events is possible. Even prediction of cloud burst is possible. Scientists now talk about ‘now-casting’ technologies, using Doppler radars and automatic stations to predict in real time, events to happen. Why Uttarakhand never got the promised radars is a question everybody is evading.

Predictions need follow up action

Secondly, understand that instrumentation — however important, however sophisticated — will not save lives. Science can merely help us predict natural disasters, only warn us about our vulnerability. In this case, the regional meteorological office had forecast extreme heavy rain—up to 200 mm. This is clearly enough of a dire warning and the disaster management establishment should have swung into action, issued weather warning; evacuated pilgrims from the most populated sites and stopped others from proceeding to the hills. But nothing of the kind happened.

Instead, after the disaster, NDMA vice chairperson has been quick to pass on the blame to the Met office, saying they did not inform them of the quantum of rain; when told that they did; he goes on to say that the exact location was not told. Ridiculous and unacceptable.

Build it right

Thirdly, floods do not kill. Buildings and bad planning does. Therefore, once we understand the vulnerability of seismic, landslide and flood-prone areas, we have to use this knowledge to ensure that structures that come up are not in the vicinity of waterways and are earthquake resistant. But this is precisely where we completely fail. We do not need new science to teach us this. But what we need is to ensure government agencies strictly regulate building plans. In this case, construction has happened everywhere—Kedarnath satellite images show clearly how the settlement to house thousands of pilgrims came up in the direct path of the streams emanating from the mighty Himalaya. This should not have been allowed.

Safety is always an afterthought for us. Until the next disaster strikes, and then agencies like NDMA temporarily shift gears to talk about the need for better preparedness and coordination. This is our real tragedy.


Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on Performance Audit of Disaster Preparedness in India

Global assessment report on disaster risk reduction 2013
World risk report 2012
Disaster management in India
India disaster report 2011
State level programmes for strengthening disaster management in India

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  • Uncommon, yet Common sense,

    Uncommon, yet Common sense, as usual. We need to stop promoting mere economically paying markets and SEZs. Instead, we must organize / save Essential Eco-LOGICAL Spaces.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Outstanding article Madam.

    Outstanding article Madam. Today Mining and Forests are the Centres of activity to make quick bucks. When nature is being looted and polluted nobody cares. Earlier humans were living in harmony with nature. Now human greediness and never caring to preserve the ecological balance are the root cause for all the ills that we are facing.God save the Motherland!
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • because there's no

    because there's no governance, whatsoever. hills need to be protected from deforestation, but one set of opportunists - timber/ hydel power cabal seems to be bent on milking the power situation by colluding with politicians and making the most! we are besieged with so many essential governance issues that we have zero bandwidth to tackle these massive challenges. no wonder we are always caught "unaware" despite so many warnings.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Unfortunately we find always

    Unfortunately we find always shelter under the disguise of climate change. I think we must stop this type of fallacious mind set and try to look at the issue to solve long term problems people face with natural disasters associated with fragile ecological disturbances. In fact there is a clear cut nexus between violators of law and political bosses-bureaucrats. This is aggravated with dividing states to meet the greedy politicians vested interests. In smaller states the rulers look at immediate profit by hook or cook as they may be ousted any time with small number of legislators changing loyalties. So, the government must stop bifurcating states to meet politicians greed. Secondly, though we are having departments to monitor disaster, they rarely do their job in sincerity. They rounded by people to promote their business and thus the department goes on harping on getting this equipment or that rather developing long term management needs in different hazards prone zones -- landslides-floods, cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, urban floods, urban fires, etc. The third issue is pilgrimage and tourism. They must be registered at state level as well they must prepare plans for eventuality. As these are known spots. In the Himalayan tragedy all these three institutions failed. The state government is now ready to pressurize the central government for funds to pocket them. So, in India it became a common story: governments wait for droughts-floods-disasters at the cost of human lives and property loss for profits. NGOs also play the same role as politicians. Also, it is a good ground to fight vote bank politics. This is exactly what the AP politicians enacting.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply