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OPINION: Time to ‘follow’ the floods in India

The scale of the devastation and damage in the recent floods in Jammu and Kashmir, the contested territory between India and Pakistan, has not been seen in this area for a hundred years. Flood damage, according to the chief minister, could go beyond ‘many thousands of crores’. Irreversible damage to key infrastructures such as roads, telecommunication, hospitals, and water supply systems and many small and medium enterprises in the Kashmir valley is likely to further escalate this cost.

Flood, as a natural hazard, has been a recurring phenomenon in many parts of India, and more so during the monsoon. States of Assam, Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Uttarakhand witnessed floods of various intensities during this year’s monsoon. Even semi-arid regions of Rajasthan witnessed flood-like situations because of unusual and heavy rainfalls in the region. At the same time, and perhaps ironically, these devastating flooding events took place amidst widespread speculations of a strong El-Nino for India this year and forecast of a deficit monsoon resulting in 1.75% decline in its GDP.

Such cases of extreme rainfall events have become frequent and intense in India. Of significant concern is the predicted and reported extreme fluctuations in the dry and wet spells of the South Asian summer monsoon. A statistically significant increase in the intensity of wet spells has already been reported.

As this extreme weather phenomena results in an increasing number of hydro-meteorological hazards, the consequent loss and damage involved is also increasing. The Uttarakhand flooding, triggered by unusually extreme rainfalls in the Himalayas, was the second deadliest hydro-meteorological disaster in 2013, after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The resulting economic and insured losses were to the tune of USD1.9 billion and USD 85 million respectively.

And according to Maplecroft’s Natural Hazards Risk Atlas 2014, India’s emerging economy is at ‘extreme risk’ of flooding and other natural hazards. Can the Indian economy, which aspires to grow at 8 to 9% annually, afford such setbacks and disruptions caused by natural disasters? The country’s development aspirations and growth targets are at greater risk of such hydro-meteorological extremes.

Such extreme events and the resulting natural disasters, apart from the destruction and devastation they inflict upon society, also open up windows of opportunity to reflect upon systems and pathways which could be revised, reconfigured and improved upon to strengthen preparedness and reduce the scale of loss and damage. Post-disaster spaces of engagement, supported by a strong political will and leadership, have in the past been instrumental in mobilising change in policy and practice in India. For example, the Orissa ‘Super Cyclone’ of 1999 and the Bhuj Earthquake of 2001 were the catalyst for India’s National Disaster Management Act.

Inadequate preparedness and response strategies, always identified as the culprits, are manifestation of a set of underlying drivers. However, these drivers are often not well understood and ignored by decision-makers. This is symptomatic of a static and business-as-usual approach and cavalier attitude to natural disasters. This is demonstrated in the fact that the ‘scale’ of a disaster is assessed or described purely on biophysical parameters, for example, the amount of rainfall ‘causing’ the flood.

Such hazard-centric approach fails on two fronts.

Firstly, it doesn’t provide a holistic view of the interactions and connections through which a specific hazard turns in to a disaster and destroys lives and livelihoods. An extreme rainfall event, like the one in Kashmir, need not turn result in devastation of this scale. We need to look at the array of development pathways and choices made in recent decades and how they have they impacted on the capacity of the systems and societies in this region to cope with such unexpected situations. The ways in which such development planning decisions and investments interact and increase the vulnerabilities of people and their assets need to be understood. The interplay between development investments and risk accumulation is particularly poorly understood. Such underlying drivers and multipliers of vulnerability haven’t yet been adequately captured and made part of disaster management policy.

Secondly, hazard focused approaches emphasize and adhere to a disaster management approach which is heavily oriented towards controlling and managing a hazard through technological interventions and capital intensive infrastructures such as dams, dykes and embankments for flood control. Such over reliance on structural measures limits the opportunities to identify the capacities and skills of the vulnerable populations and ways through which these could be supported to reduce their exposure. Capital is preferred over capacity and this results in shrinking spaces of public engagement, social learning and accountability.

The Kashmir floods also highlight the need for trans-boundary and regional level platforms. These could also serve as an effective entry point to build and bolster trust across disputed borders and contested territories.

We cannot afford to forget these floods anymore. Such floods need to be carefully assessed to identify the gaps and opportunities across the development-disaster continuum. Many opportunities are lost by treating natural disasters as one-off and standalone events. It is time to devote more effort and space to understand the underlying drivers and mechanisms which put a system and society at greater risk. This shift from ‘What is at risk’ to ‘Why is it at risk’ would help create a systematic and coherent approach to the framing as well as management of disasters in the country. A critical element in this transition is to enhance the capacity of national and local disaster management institutions, systems and actors to better understand and prepare for weather extremes and anomalies as part of an emergent disaster risk landscape.

Post the Kashmir floods there will be enough space for the newly elected Modi government, which has demonstrated tremendous political leadership and potential in the past 100 days, to initiate transformative changes in the approach to and practice of disaster management in the country.

Perceptions, practices and priorities on natural disasters need to change to promote a safe and disaster resilient India.

The author, Jyotiraj Patra, is a Research Award Recipient (RAR) with the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative for Africa and Asia (CARIAA) at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Views expressed are personal. For more information, contact


We occasionally invite bloggers from around the world to provide their experiences and views. The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of CDKN.

Picture courtesy of Oxfam International @flickr creative commons

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