In the wake of disaster

      At the 13th SAARC Summit, in Dhaka in November 2005, the heads-of-state of the seven regional countries decided that the time was ripe to incorporate into the end-of-session declaration a reference to 'disasters'. This was the first time that such a reference was included. Southasia had just been hit by two of the worst natural disasters in modern history – the December 2004 Tsunami and the October 2005 Kashmir earthquake – without counting the many 'everyday' disasters that seem to plague the region. The final version of the Dhaka Declaration subsequently urged individual governments to "put into place a permanent regional response mechanism dedicated to preparedness, emergency response and rehabilitation."   So the idea of a regional centre for disaster management was conceived, the mandate of which was to coordinate "activities in disaster management such as early warning, exchange of information, training and sharing experiences in emergency relief." The leaders also went a step further, calling for a comprehensive framework on early warning and disaster management for the entire region. Big words and bigger ambitions – especially in a region where institutions multiply like dragonflies in the summer, but ultimately have little effect on the everyday governance of the countries of Southasia. In terms of preparedness and risk reduction, however, the Dhaka Declaration missed the long-term objective of disaster management. These two essential elements, after all, would ensure that less people are exposed to hazards, and that those who are suffer less damage and displacement.   Fast-forward to Delhi, August 2006. At a South Asia Policy Dialogue meeting in the Indian capital, disaster-management experts again mulled over the idea of regional cooperation, and agreed that a coordinated early warning system would be a positive step, as it would force the sharing of the heavy burden of emergency response and expertise between the region's countries. The Delhi Declaration binds governments to consider the links between disasters, development and the situation of people living in vulnerable regions. It urges governments to prepare and protect people from natural hazards, rather than simply preparing for smooth emergency relief. According to a decision taken at the Delhi meet, the SAARC Disaster Management Centre (DMC) will come into being in October in New Delhi, parented by India's National Institute of Disaster Management.   The challenge ahead will be to save the DMC and the Delhi Declaration from becoming just another inoperative SAARC programme. Previous SAARC summits and meetings have, after all, already established a Meteorological Research Centre, a Coastal Zone Management Centre and other such fairly ineffective institutions. Both of these named centres could now play a critical role in regional disaster management and weather-related information-sharing. Up to this point, their effectiveness has been compromised by the persistent ills that plague such regional offspring – lack of funding, lack of profile, lack of coordination and the like. Whether the new institution will have the foresight and maturity to carry out the priority activities of the Delhi Declaration will depend on the political will of the member countries and their respective ministries.   Sabotaged development
An increasing body of evidence points to intrinsic links between recurrent natural hazards, poor environmental management, and development programmes that fail to succeed at poverty-reduction. In short, if disasters are ignored, there is a good chance that development initiatives will be stunted by the human and economic costs extracted by natural hazards. Communities that have to live with recurrent disasters – drought, earthquakes, floods, cyclones – will find it hard to crawl out of the poverty trap when their livelihoods are under regular threat.   Development projects can often make communities more prone to disasters, by altering river flows and drainage patterns, and through massive deforestation. At the same time, when natural hazards result in disaster, countries often find that much of their national income is suddenly drained on rehabilitation and relief for victims.   Understanding this context is all the more important for Southasia. With a quarter of the world's population, the region is home to nearly half the world's poor. Disasters here come in all forms. Persistent drought and, alternatively, monsoon flooding is a constant threat in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Cyclones wreak havoc upon coastal areas of India and Bangladesh. Earthquakes and landslides are everyday realities for communities living in Nepal and parts of India and Pakistan. The major impact of such disasters is upon the poor, whether they live in flood plains, coastal belts, arid lands or mountain slopes. Often their livelihood is based on subsistence farming or fishing, which is invariably destroyed in the disaster.   "Southasia has been a region of mega-disasters," said Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil at the inauguration of the South Asia Policy Dialogue, as explanation for why the region's countries are suddenly keen on disaster-management policy changes. In the past, SAARC countries have differed widely in the ways they have approached these issues, and mostly there has been a flurry of activity in the wake of disasters. Bangladesh, with its long history of natural disasters, in 2003 became the first country to establish a separate ministry for disaster management, and to incorporate disaster risk-reduction into its national environmental programmes and Millennium Development Goals-related pledges.   India has now enacted comprehensive legislation, and set up decentralised institutional structures at state and local levels to deal with disaster management. A good example of such a working structure is the manner in which the Tamil Nadu state government handled the post-Tsunami reconstruction in its coastal areas, setting its own policies and procedures for crisis management. After the massive earthquake that destroyed many communities in Kashmir last October, Islamabad is also looking at putting in place legal and institutional systems for better disaster management. In the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, several important actions were taken in Sri Lanka dealing with disaster management. Parliament passed a disaster management act, a ministry and a national centre were created, and a Roadmap for Disaster Risk Reduction and Management was adopted.   Despite these positive moves elsewhere in the neighbourhood, however, reactive policies still dominate in Nepal, where the state remains sluggish on disaster management initiatives, and on installing systems for preparedness. Bhutan and
the Maldives, meanwhile, lag still farther behind, and are considered the most neglected countries regarding disaster policy and relevant information-gathering.   Unless and until disaster planning is incorporated into the general development plans and poverty-reduction strategies in all of these countries, there is little hope to emerge from the recurrent cycle of disaster-driven poverty. But even where policies are relatively strong and commitment is apparent – Bangladesh, for instance – there is a mismatch in implementation. The problem with putting policy to practice lies in the nature of governance in Southasian countries – top-down approaches and lacks of transparency, accountability and popular participation.   Climate of uncertainty
Climate change today is a reality. In few places is this as apparent as in Southasia, where the transformation of climate has overturned the familiar patterns of weather into unpredictable and erratic seasons. Farmers who used to swear by monsoon seasons today shake their heads in bewilderment as their crops fail due to either too much rain or outright drought. In 2005, a large part of North India suffered unusually low winter temperatures, killing more than 100. A mere six months later, a heat wave killed almost 330 in the same region. 500 were killed in wind storms in Afghanistan, and another 900 in India and Pakistan due to unusually heavy snowfall, avalanches and rain in the Kashmir region. The change in global temperature and climate has not been concretely linked to an increase in disaster incidence, but scientists the world over agree that the ferocity and frequency of disasters such as cyclones, hurricanes and earthquakes have increased.   While disasters may not respect political boundaries, there is much that Southasian governments can do to create regional information-sharing for better disaster-readiness. Individual countries, especially the economically weaker ones, can gain significantly with better regional cooperation. Take, for instance, rainfall data related to the flows of the Brahmaputra, Ganga and Meghna rivers, which often cause dire flooding in Bangladesh. Studies have shown that rainfall data from the upper catchments of India and Bhutan can help to measure river flows downstream, allowing experts to predict floods at least a month in advance. But to date, such simple information as rainfall data is not accessible between regional institutions.   There have been positive examples of cooperation, as well. Sri Lanka has been able to borrow heavily from the reconstruction experience of both Gujarat after the 2001 earthquake, and Tamil Nadu's disaster-resistant housing designs following the Tsunami. But sharing information alone is not adequate, if the inherent lessons are not absorbed and learned. Even after the experience of the Tsunami, Sri Lanka was caught unaware when recent conflict in the northern and eastern parts of the country again pushed tens of thousands from their homes. One relief worker was recently heard commenting, "We have yet to learn to even set up proper camps for displaced people."   The SAARC Disaster Management Centre now has the opportunity of bridging some of these gaps – building connections between countries that today carry out little in the name of regional cooperation, and jealously guard their own turf. The Delhi Declaration sets out clear priority areas for regional action, which can readily form the core of the centre's work. Early warning mechanisms would be a crucial starting point, beginning with the sharing of weather and river-flow information throughout the Subcontinent. Another of the new centre's functions will be to guide countries towards incorporating disaster preparedness into their development planning, as India has promised to do in their 11th five-year plan, currently under formulation.   With the intentions, priorities and initial infrastructure now in place, the challenge for the centre – and its participating governments – will be in rising above the foggy politics that often cloud the vision of Southasian leaders, particularly in terms of crossborder cooperation. With the powerful rhetoric of the inauguration in mind, a path now needs to be set for a productive regional programme, one that will benefit both the region's powerful and weaker countries.  

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian