Mumbai made the headlines on August 29th when it received 11 times the average daily monsoon rainfall for the city, in 12 hours. According to this IndiaSpend report, other Indian cities have also suffered in August. Chandigarh on August 21st received 23 times that city’s average monsoon daily rainfall. Bengaluru received 37 times its daily average on August 15th, and Agartala on August 11-12 received 11 times its daily average. In fact, South Asia has had so much flooding this monsoon season that the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) says it is becoming one of the worst regional humanitarian crises in years.
Heavy rainfall and floods are an annual occurrence in this region. In fact, because we experience flooding every year, it is the one ‘disaster’ by which the average citizen can judge how disasters are managed in this country. Let me say, that in Mumbai at least, we haven’t seen any improvement in disaster management over the years. That’s because you can only manage a disaster if you prepare for it.
So what is ‘Disaster Preparedness’? To me, as a citizen, my city’s disaster preparedness means that I have answers to questions that arise in the event of a disaster – answers both on paper and on the ground. Some of those questions may be:
- How will I be alerted of an impending emergency/disaster?
- How can I prepare for it in my home?
- During the emergency/disaster whom do I contact in case I need the assistance of any kind – evacuation, food, water, medicines, missing persons/pets?
- In case of a power outage, how do I alert authorities that I need help?
- Where in my locality can I go for refuge/food/medical assistance?
- How can I volunteer or donate?
- What is being done to ensure that I get clean water post the disaster?
- What are the steps being taken to prevent the spread of disease after the disaster?
- Are there expenses that I incur that will be reimbursed for by the government?
- What is the assistance I will get from the government to rebuild my home and my business?
I can certainly get organized and have answers to some of these questions at an individual or local community level. However, the scale of some disasters (or emergencies) in terms geography and the number of people affected requires contribution across the center, state and local levels. I’m not even speaking of funding, which is a must. I’m talking of organizational infrastructure.
No National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) presence felt: Let me use the Mumbai flooding on August 29th to explain my point. By the time authorities like the Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) or the Police started alerting people about the heavy showers that were expected, commuters were already at the office or on their way to work. On Twitter, while the Mumbai Police sent alerts about the most flooded areas, warnings to stay indoors, etc. and the railway authorities sent alerts on local trains services, the NDMA sent pictures of its do’s and don’ts. It is important information but definitely not adequate from the NDMA in a crisis. It was left to citizens, small businesses, and local community groups to organize shelter and food the night for stranded commuters, and to communicate that information across the city. There were no signs that a disaster management plan had been put into gear by the NDMA – no press conference, no status updates, no talk of relief centers, no indication that there was any coordination with agencies like the Police or the BMC or hospitals.
NDMA versus FEMA: The flooding in Mumbai happened while Hurricane Harvey battered Houston, Texas in the United States. This allowed for comparisons between how a developing country handles disasters versus how a developed country handles them. The first thing that a citizen would do in such a crisis is to look for information. One quick scan of the National Disaster Management Authority website reveals that is clearly for government bureaucrats. It contains information on plans, policies, training, budgets, etc. For an agency that is meant to provide assistance to citizens, it is ironic that information for citizens is relegated to a section called Citizens Corner in which the only thing of value is a do’s and don’ts list and an emergency kit list. Other than that, there is a helpline number flashing on the home page, with a Delhi area code. With the exception of the ‘alert’ ticker, the website is for all practical purposes, static.
If you go to the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website, it first shows you a page with a link to ‘find up-to-date resources and information on the federal response to Harvey’ (Between writing this piece and publishing it, the link has been updated to ‘information on returning home and cleaning up’. That’s how regularly updated the site is).
The ‘up-to-date resources’ link took you to all the information you would need about Harvey including emergency contact numbers, links to organizations helping with rescue and relief, links for donations and volunteering, etc. There was even a number you could call to report price gouging if someone was spiking up the prices of goods and services in an emergency. The FEMA website also has a link to another site called disasterassistance.gov. Its overview section says “Our goal is to improve survivor access to disaster information and make applying for disaster assistance easier. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), acts as the managing partner.”
Most of the work in managing a disaster is done in preparing for the eventuality that it will happen somewhere, i.e. assuming the probability of the disaster, without knowing where and when it will occur. It is clear by watching news reports on Harvey and browsing through their website that FEMA succeeds in disaster management because they focus on disaster preparedness. You can’t have one without the other.
So how can we begin to be prepared? Please note that in my list below when I use ‘we’ I refer to every level – individual (the citizen), local, state and central:
- We need a change in mindset from being reactive to being proactive. Trying to solve a problem when it’s at your doorstep can lead to a waste of time, energy, money and lives.
- The citizen’s needs and expectations need to be at the center of all disaster preparedness and disaster management plans, much like the customer is the focal point of a business.
- We need to train a lot of people on the ground. In a country like India where the population density is high (382 persons per sq. km. as per the 2011 census) and the infrastructure is non-existent or inadequate, citizens in every locality need to take care of themselves till more help arrives. To do that they have to be trained. There should be mandatory training for all citizens in the basics of first aid, fire safety, etc.; and any citizen volunteers should be trained in putting the disaster management plan into action. The more people know what they need to do in a crisis, the better the results in managing that crisis.
Finally, I started this piece by talking about the flood situation in India. It was an example of one type of disaster. Let me take you back to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) website and the ‘Citizens Corner’ section on the left of the homepage. The ‘natural disasters’ list includes floods, urban floods, landslides, cyclones, heat waves, tsunamis, and earthquakes – most of them, climate change related. Under ‘man-made disasters’ the list is blank. Go figure. We’ve got a long, long way to get to a state of preparedness.