HIGH WATER AND HELLIn the wake of the recent tsunami disaster, how prepared are we to face natural calamities. Ramesh Ramachandran reports.

Murphy’s Law may not have many takers in the scientific community but ironically, for a minister who presides over the science and technology establishment in India, Kapil Sibal has learnt it the hard way.

From the time tremors rocked Sumatra, Indonesia, at 6.29 am to when tsunamis hit the eastern coast and an earthquake jolted Indira Point, the southern-most tip of the country, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, two odd hours were not inadequate to get into emergency mode. But for the slip by Mausam Bhawan mandarins who, as we now know, were overcome by a lethargy bordering on indifference.

The Indian Meteorology Department displayed an inertia that had a cascading effect on the Disaster Control Room in the Ministry of Home Affairs and other agencies down the line and led to avoidable delays. By then, what was only a “natural hazard” had turned into a “disaster” which, as President APJ Abdul Kalam was to later describe, is one of the largest calamities that the world has witnessed with widespread damage, suffering reaching the magnitude as in the explosions of the atom bombs during World War II.

What went wrong? Could the earthquake and the tsunami have been predicted with just enough time to put in place emergency measures? Could the extent of destruction have been mitigated? As the earthquake in Gujarat in 2001 proved, the system did not exist beyond the file in which it was conceived. The horror of December 26, 2004, Sunday, reinforces that perception. Adding credence to it is a certain mindset or attitude peculiar to Indians that attributes everything, or at least most of the things, to karma. It is in the collective consciousness of a billion people in the sub-continent that natural disasters are inevitable, and will happen no matter what. Then fatalism takes over.

In India, 10 million died in the Bengal famine of 1769. So how vulnerable are we as a nation? Statistics suggest that 54 per cent of land is vulnerable to earthquakes, eight per cent of land is vulnerable to cyclones and five per cent to floods. The biggest quakes have been reported in the Andamans, Kutch, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar and north-eastern India. Between 1891 and 1990, 262 cyclones (92 severe) have occurred in a 50-km-wide strip on the eastern coast and 33 cyclones of lesser severity on the western coast in the same period. Floods in the Indo-Gangetic-Brahmaputra plains are an annual feature. Out of the 31 States and UTs in the country, 22 are disaster-prone.

Convincing power

A woman carries her daughter as she leaves the Car Nicobar island.
A woman carries her daughter as she leaves the Car Nicobar island. — Reuters photos

For a government that has hurtled from one flip-flop to another in the aftermath of the disaster, it has a lot of explaining to do but, as Kapil Sibal told media persons, “No government thought of such an occurrence because the last recorded tsunami was in 1883. A disaster of this scale was not in the horizon of our thoughts. Besides, tsunamis are not seen in ocean and gain height only when they approach the shore”. Reacting to allegations that the government could not warn the coastal areas on time, he said: “It is not necessary that tsunamis will be there in the event of an earthquake. In history, there have been many earthquakes which have not caused any tsunamis”. Ocean Development Secretary H.K. Gupta explained that the only proven tsunami was in 1883, which was caused due to a volcanic explosion that gave rise to high waves along parts of the eastern coast. Opinion of the scientific community is divided. Scientists in the USA and Canada including Tad Murty, a former president of Tsunami Society, maintain the scale of devastation could have been reduced if appropriate measures were taken.

In July 1994, two months after the Yokohama Conference, the government had constituted an Expert Group to examine and recommend measures for improving preparedness and prevention with respect to natural disasters. The outcome of that study is not known even after a decade.

Incidentally, 1990-200 was the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction and a mid-term review was held at Yokohama in May 1994 where governments, NGOs, scientific community, business, industry and the media shared experiences, assessed the state of the problem and emphasised an urgent shift in strategy. The Yokohama Message read: Those affected most are the poor and the socially disadvantaged in developing countries as they are the least equipped to cope with the situation.

Disaster Prevention, mitigation and preparedness are better than disaster response. Disaster response alone yields temporary relief at a very high cost. Prevention contributes to lasting improvement in safety.

An effective system

The President, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, has led the nation in calling for an integrated disaster management mechanism that institutionalises the chain of command and increases the preparedness of the agencies concerned. Earthquake prediction research, he has said, needed an integrated national and international partnership. “There was need to mount a long-term programme to predict the earthquake in the land and in the seabed sufficiently in advance to provide adequate warning and minimise the loss of life”.

He also observed that it was essential that the Indian seashores and its islands be provided with tsunami warning system or equivalent with the Indian Control Centre connected to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre.

Since the research and development laboratories of DST, ISRO, DOD, DAE, DRDO and CSIR and educational institutions have expertise in multiple areas, they could evolve an integrated technological solution in the form of sensor, communication system, networking and high-density tidal wave warning system, along with a very well-structured communication and control system for disaster warning and management.

Another area of concern is the multiplicity of authority. In the absence of a centralised National Disaster Management Agency, it is the Crisis Management Group that swings into action and co-ordinates rescue and relief operations in the aftermath of a disaster.

Although there exists a disaster management division headed by an additional secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, a dedicated team of professionals is absent. Neither is there a standard operating procedure or protocol to activate emergency services and mobilise resources. According to the Delhi-based National Centre for Disaster Management, there should be a greater emphasis on development of new technologies in disaster mitigation. Awareness is the only effective way of mitigating the impact of future disasters.

No quick-fix solutions

It is only after tsunamis wreaked havoc on December 26 that the government declared its intention of installing early warning systems. While Home Minister Shivraj Patil spoke about establishing a National Disaster Management Agency, his Cabinet colleague Kapil Sibal told reporters the government has decided to install deep ocean assessment and reporting systems and also coordinate with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre. It will entail an expenditure of about Rs 125 crore. Several more crores are likely to be spent on setting up advanced measures to predict quakes and deep sea movements. India, with an 8,000 km-long coastline remains as vulnerable as ever and more so, given the aftershocks that continue to jolt Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

If one considers the loss to India Inc due to tsunami, which is estimated to be in the range of several thousands of crores, the expenditure of a thousand-odd crore for installing early warning systems is justified, the government is only realising now.



Troubled coast

Of all the states, Andhra Pradesh is the most threatened by cyclones. Ramesh Babu Kandula from Hyderabad on the ordeals endured by the state.

Tsunami may be the new face of disaster, but the people of east coast along the Bay of Bengal are no strangers to the swirl of the sea and the terror of the tides.

Coastal AP is probably the most vulnerable region in India to tropical storms. All nine coastal districts, along with four adjoining inland districts, are subject to frequent cyclones, storm surges and floods. Over-development and denuding of coastal zones of their protective vegetation belts have resulted in increased vulnerability. The deadliest disaster in the last 20 years was the November 1977 cyclone, which killed about 10,000 people.

The eastern coastline has always been a trouble spot as around 80 per cent of the total cyclones generated in the region hit there. During a period of 100 years (from 1891 to 1991), 442 cyclones lashed the Bay of Bengal coast, while 117 cyclones were formed in the Arabian Sea.

Cyclone formations require warm seas and still air and the Bay of Bengal provides these ideal conditions that normally occur in the months of April-May and October-December. Cyclones strike here in May-June and October -November with the monsoon's onset and retreat.

While states on the eastern coastline are more prone to cyclones, Andhra Pradesh is the most threatened among them. The people in the state’s coastal region have learnt to live with the cyclonic storms unleashed periodically by Mother Nature. Since 1900, more than 60 cyclones have hit this state. While the 1977 cyclone killed 10,000 people and affected 71 million people, the May 1990 cyclone killed 928 persons and about 24,000 cattle. The devastating cyclone of November 6, 1996 took 1,057 lives.

Total economic loss caused by natural disasters in AP in 1996 is estimated at US $2 billion, with the cyclone alone accounting for US $1.5 billion. The cyclone affected nine of the total 23 districts, while the number of villages affected was 5,923. A total of about 7.8 million people were affected by the 1996 cyclone. About 827,100 houses were partially damaged while 569,000 were completely destroyed. More than 500,000 hectares of agricultural and horticultural land were affected.

Stretches along the Bay of Bengal coastline have the world's shallowest waters but the relatively dense population and poor economic condition complicate the situation. The population density in some of the coastal districts is as high as 670 persons per square km compared to the state average of 268 persons per square km. The most cyclone-prone area in the state is the Krishna delta on the east coast of peninsular India, followed by Nellore, Krishna, Srikakulam and East Godavari districts.

The 1977 killer cyclone has been a turning point in the history of country’s disaster management. The calamity turned the focus of the administrators on improving early warning systems, disaster management and more importantly, disaster preparedness. The early warning system was taken as a key to disaster mitigation in the state. There were cyclones of much greater intensities in 1984, 1990 and 1996 which caused enormous loss to agricultural crops and private property, but the loss of human life was greatly reduced.

Cyclone warning systems have significantly improved since 1977 killer cyclone. The Cyclone Surveillance Radars at as many as seven centres including Kolkata, Visakhapatnam, Machilipatnam and Chennai have vastly improved the country’s cyclone warning and advance forecast capacity.

The Indian Meteorological Department has a satellite-based communication system called Cyclone Warning Dissemination System for direct cyclone warnings to the cyclone-prone coastal areas. A Cyclone Warning Division in New Delhi co-ordinates and supervises the entire cyclone warning programmes in the country.

As a result, presently a "Cyclone Alert" is issued 48 hours in advance of the expected storm in coastal areas, while a "Cyclone Warning" is issued 24 hours in advance. Taking advantage of the IT, the AP government installed teleconferencing facilities at all district headquarters. This proved handy during cyclone storms as local officials could be immediately alerted on evacuation measures. The technological advancement has also helped to directly send cyclone warnings to the vulnerable areas through Insat.

The importance of an effective early warning system cannot be overstated in relation to natural calamities as the recent tsunami disaster has shown. It is now known that there was an hour and a half between the earthquake in Indonesia and the first tidal waves to hit Sri Lanka and India. Had these countries been on the list at the Pacific Ocean's tsunami warning centre, which covers 26 countries, there might have been some action taken to mitigate the effects.

"The surge of waters (during the recent tsunami onslaught) was lesser on the AP coast, but the warning and disaster management systems in place also contributed in bringing down the death toll," said J. V. M. Naidu, director, Indian Meteorological Department, Visakhapatnam. While 104 people were swept away by the tsunami waves in the state, around 35,000 were evacuated to safer places.

Poor infrastructure and bad water management is another cause for the high rate of death and destruction during natural calamities. The Cyclone Reconstruction Project implemented in coastal Andhra Pradesh during 1990-93 with the help of the World Bank at a cost of US $265 million improved infrastructure standards in the region, resulting in less number of casualties during the disasters that occurred later. Expansion of road and communication network, building of school buildings that doubled as cyclone shelters in times of emergency have vastly improved in disaster mitigation. The casuarina plantations along the coast as a shelterbelt have proven effective at weakening the force of winds.

While the death toll has come down in AP during cyclonic storms, the economic losses are yet to be better managed. It is for this reason that the World Bank, while providing another US$180 million under Andhra Pradesh Hazard Mitigation and Emergency Cyclone Recovery Project, emphasised long-term cyclone hazard reduction planning as a prerequisite for the sustainability of physical investments in need of reconstruction. Adopting a long- term disaster management as the guiding principle of recovery, the WB project funded the comprehensive cyclone and flood management programme in the state, which was completed in 2003.