Friday, September 23, 2011

Casual attitude towards disasters

There is a need to draw up a comprehensive plan to manage natural disasters.

Sankar Ray/Kolkata

Frequency of natural disasters the world over shot up very alarmingly by four-fold between the early 1980s and during the first six years of the new millennium. If on an average 120 natural disasters used to happen annually during the early 1980s, the figure almost touched 500 a year in the beginning of this century. This comparative data-base was brought out by the British charity Oxfam in November 2007. The sharp rise in the frequency of natural disasters is more in evidence in the South Asia and India in particular.
During the last three decades, Indians somewhat helplessly witnessed "over 415 natural disasters. These have resulted in the deaths of over 139,000 persons, affected almost 1.5 billion others and caused economic damages greater than 50 billion US dollars", wrote Professor Debarati Guha-Sapir, head of the Euro-Asia MICRODIS project for developing a comprehensive understanding extreme events and consequences towards establishment of a common integrated framework for disaster response, and an NRI and professor at the Catholic University of Luvain , Brussels in her foreword to a very-recently brought out study, Disasters in West Bengal-An interdisciplinary study . The lead institution is Jadavpur University while it was funded by the EU Framework Programme of MICRODIS - Integrated Health, Social and Economic Impacts of Extreme Issues. Dr Guha-Sapir, justly stressed on the necessity for ' disaster preparedness and prevention' as a hedge against negative effects of natural disasters on the future economic and social development. Half of these natural disasters happened in India , meaning 65 per cent of India's total economic damages.
The most recognizable cause of acceleration of this built-in catastrophe is reckless urbanization. But the ecological consciousness is lacking among academics who are yet to realize the perils of encirclement of countryside by cities. Take an article by Dr Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, belonging to the CPI(M) think tank in an article - The Urbanisation Challenge. She wrote, "Urban population increase reflects the outcome of three separate forces: the natural increase in population within the urban areas; the migration of rural dwellers to urban areas; and the reclassification of settlements from rural to urban. All three have been at work over the past decade. While we still do not have access to the detailed Census data that would allow for the disaggregation, we do know that the last factor is likely to have played a major role, simply because there has been a significant, even remarkable increase in the number of urban conurbations in the latest Census. The number of urban settlements has increased from 5161 in 2001 to 7935 in 2011, an increase of 54% that dwarfs the 32% growth in urban population. ". She is critical of slow urbanization in some areas, unconcerned about the ecocidal propensity of thoughtless urbanization in the name of development.
The study inter alia focused on geomorphology and meteorology of natural disasters, identified vulnerable regions, assessed disaster impacts and set out ex-ante and ex-post disaster issues for disaster management. The importance of the research cannot be exaggerated in an age of extremities and the unprecedented in the realm of the environment , forcing the mankind, Homo sapiens, to cross the threshold of the past. Human beings are positioned in a transitional alternative, new life support system with a perspective of extremities. The climate change which is happening necessitates an incisive understanding about the altering biosphere.
In one of the chapters, on geomorphology and meteorology, authored by Dr Debashis Lohar, associate professor, atmospheric research group, department of physics, JU, and one of the co-coordinators of the investigative project, along with his junior colleague, Dr Vikramaditya Mandal, made some valuable revelations, hitherto ignored at the governance level . But the eastern India "is the worst affected area that witnesses frequent floods, cyclones, drought and thunder storms and thunder squalls, avalanche and landslides" , leading to grave consequences to ecology and hence economy too.
Floods in West Bengal are directly related to dynamics of the landmass formed by the Ganges-Padma-Brahmaputra system of rivers. Presently, , 42.3% of the state or 3.77 million hectares "is vulnerable to floods that spread over 110 blocks in 19 districts " mainly Kolkata, Hooghly, Howrah, two 24 Parganas, two Medinipur, Burdwan, Birbhum, Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, Maldah, Murshidabad and Darjeeling. But strangely enough, "most of the residents of disaster-prone areas in W Bengal are unprepared for a catastrophic event", implying that the state takes kindly to the need for any awareness campaign among the vulnerable sections in taking on catastrophes , despite access to the early warning system with a fairly advanced round-the-clock satellite network.
Combating this should be a joint effort of governments and NGOs, even religious organizations which are not politically connected such as the Bharat Sevashram Sangha and Lutheran Church , of course on conditions of proving accountability. Ex-post disaster management needs massive investment for relief and reconstruction. Governments, the report, inferred, "have to pay a high price for limited resources, opportunity costs of deploying development funds for relief and reconstruction, weaker institutional and governance frameworks, and institutional options depending on size of the country, type of disasters and other factors."
Epidemiology of disasters is an uphill task but no country can ignore this. After all "natural disasters" - disruption in the balance of the environment - "are not bounded by any political boundary", rightly points out Prof Tuhin Das, department of economics, JU, and a co-coordinator.

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