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Be risktrictive

Natural disasters have caused major economic losses and severe destruction since the beginning of civilisation. However, with increase in population and the growth of human habitat which are prone to disasters in several parts of the world, the frequency and intensity of such occurrences have grown. So also has the vulnerability of large numbers of people to the impacts of these disasters.

It is difficult to list out a precise number of things that need to change in order to deal with calamities, because several actions that are required are interrelated. In fact, dealing with the risks of disaster requires careful integration with development policy, because development itself has to take place in the face of growing risks on account of disasters worldwide. One area where human perceptions have not really come to grips with increasing disaster risk is in respect of those related to climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has completed and released its special report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. This report has come up with several findings important for dealing with disaster risks of all kinds.

Several strategies are required for handling climate and non-climate risks in different parts of the world. India is particularly vulnerable to both types of risks, and these are prevalent to an extent that requires action not only at the national level but right down to communities and local Governments. It is at the local level and in the creation of capacity at the grassroots that effective responses can be ensured in dealing with disasters of all kinds.

A significant experience that I had was when a part of Andhra Pradesh suffered from a serious heatwave in 2003. A total of 4,000 deaths were recorded. The then CM asked me to chair a committee to look into this and to come up with recommendations on how such situations could be dealt with. It was revealing to find that even though the entire population of the State had access to radio and TV, no early warning was provided to vulnerable regions.

More importantly, victims of heat stress were not informed of simple measures like oral rehydration therapy which could have saved lives. There was need for effective co-ordination between departments to ensure that a serious emergency is managed through action involving co-ordination of several Government and civil society wings.

In today's situation radio, TV and mobile phones reach all sections and technological infrastructure is available for helping affected communities. Exposure and vulnerability are key determinants of disaster risk and of impacts when a risk is realised. For example, a tropical cyclone can have different impacts depending on where and when it makes the landfall. Similarly, a heatwave can have different impacts on different populations depending on their vulnerability. Extreme impacts on human, ecological or physical systems can result from individual extreme weather or climate events. Extreme impacts can also result from non-extreme events where exposure and vulnerability are high. For example, drought, coupled with extreme heat and low humidity, increases the risk of wildfire.

Settlement patterns, urbanisation and changes in socio-economic conditions have all influenced trends in exposure and vulnerability to climate extremes. For example, coastal settlements, including small islands and megadeltas, and mountain settlements are vulnerable throughout the world, but with differences in regions and countries.

Rapid urbanisation and growth of megacities, especially in developing countries, have led to the emergence of highly vulnerable urban communities, particularly through informal settlements and inadequate land management. Vulnerable populations include refugees, internally displaced people, and those living in marginal areas.

Economic losses from natural disasters have increased, but with large spatial and interannual variability. Global natural disaster losses reported over the last few decades reflect mainly monetised direct damages to assets, and are unequally distributed.

Estimates of annual losses have ranged since 1980 from a few billion to above $200bn, with the highest value for 2005 (the year of Hurricane Katrina). Loss estimates are lower bound estimates because many impacts, such as loss of human lives, cultural heritage and ecosystem services are difficult to value and monetise, and thus they are poorly reflected in estimates of losses.

Economic, including insured, disaster losses associated with weather, climate, and geophysical events are higher in developed countries. Fatality rates and economic losses expressed as a proportion of GDP are higher in developing countries. During the period from 1970 to 2008, over 95 per cent deaths from natural disasters occurred in developing countries. Middle income countries with rapidly expanding asset bases have borne the largest burden.

During the period from 2001-2006, losses amounted to about one per cent of GDP for middle income countries, while this ratio has been about 0.3 per cent of GDP for low income countries and less than 0.1 per cent of GDP for high income countries, based on limited evidence. In small exposed countries, particularly Small Island Developing States, losses expressed as a percentage of GDP have been particularly high, exceeding one per cent in many cases and eight per cent in the most extreme cases, averaged over both disaster and non-disaster years between 1970 and 2010.

There is a need to urgently prepare India for extreme events which are projected to increase in the 21st century. For instance, based on specific scenarios it has been projected that a one-in-20-year hottest day is likely to become a one-in-two year event by the end of the 21st century in most regions except in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.

Hence, the one-in-20-year extreme daily maximum temperature will likely increase by about 1 to 3°C by mid-21st century and by about 2 to 5°C by late 21st century. Indian society needs to take measures to adapt to these impacts.

Called low-regrets measures, the beneficial steps are available starting points for addressing projected trends. They have the potential to offer benefits now and lay the foundation for addressing projected changes. Many of these low-regrets strategies produce co-benefits, help address other development goals, such as improvements in livelihoods, human well-being and biodiversity conservation, and help minimise the scope for maladaptation. Potential low-regrets measures include early warning systems; risk communication between decision makers and citizens; sustainable land management, including land use planning; and ecosystem management and restoration. Improvements to health surveillance, water supply, sanitation and irrigation and drainage systems; climate proofing of infrastructure; development and enforcement of building codes; and better education and awareness are other such measures.

Integration of local knowledge with additional scientific and technical knowledge can improve disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Local populations document their experiences with the changing climate, particularly extreme weather events, in many different ways, and this self-generated knowledge can uncover existing capacity within the community and important current shortcomings.

While the Government has taken several steps and has established organisational capacity to deal with disasters, this effort needs to be deepened to reach other levels of society too. Combined with institutional changes, creating adequate awareness among the public would go a long way in developing capacity at every level to meet the risks associated with disasters in India.

Tags: natural calamities, disaster, conservation, climate change

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