Two Disasters, One Lesson

Past three weeks found this writer participate in two major events organized by the United Nation’s Development Programme ( UNDP ) on Disaster Risk Reduction ( DRR ) in New Delhi. While the first event, organized jointly with the National Centre for Good Governance ( NC GG) was by way of Sharing Experience on what all was attempted and achieved in our own state, Uttarakhand, by way of recovery action; the second was jointly organized in collaboration with the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Union Nodal Ministry for DRR. The latter in fact was a National Consultation on Post 2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Those who closely follow the discourse on Disaster Risk Reduction would recall that the Hyogo Framework for Action ( HFA ) was launched at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction ( WCDR ) held in Kobe from 18-22 January, 2005. The HFA was subsequently adopted by 168 UN member states as a guiding framework on disaster reduction for the period 2005-2015, which included India. The enactment of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 is nothing but a follow up action by way of implementation of the HFA, to which India became a signatory. Accordingly, since 2005 the HFA has become the guiding framework for disaster risk reduction ( DRR ) initiatives of not only National Governments and international organisations but also civil society organisations ( CSO ) and the academia. ‘Substantial reduction of disaster losses, in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets of communities and countries’, has been the expected outcome of this HFA Framework during this period.

Uttarakhand Recovery Action ( 2013-14 )                                                                                                                                                                                       

In the National Sharing of Experience Workshop, held on 27 August 2014 in New Delhi, attended by a broad range of participants and actors from the Government, civil society, private sector and the international community that have participated in relief and recovery efforts in Uttarakhand the basis idea was to ‘share the experience and the achievements of the coordinated approach to disaster, early recovery and response from Uttarakhand’. The purpose of the Workshop was to provide an overview of the relief and recovery actions undertaken by the Government of Uttarakhand and its partners in the past 12 months and more importantly reflect on lessons learned and viable partnership models that can be replicated in other disaster affected states in India to better meet the needs of most affected households.

As is well known to readers by now that an estimated over 108,600 people were affected with the districts of Bageshwar, Chamoli, Pithoragarh, Rudraprayag and Uttarkashi being most affected by this disaster. Officially, a total of 580 human lives were lost; about 5,750 people were reported missing, over 1600 villages were affected; 9,500 cattle/livestock lost; and over 4,200 houses were fully damaged. What had made the situation even more critical was that this disaster coincided with the peak tourist and pilgrimage season thus significantly increasing the number of casualties, missing, and affected population. In addition, the numerous landslides and land erosion by the sediment loaded rivers caused severe damage to the infrastructure by washing away roads and bridges, disrupting traffic and telecommunication lines, all these adding to the impact of the disaster and making relief efforts extremely difficult. Many hotels, rest houses and shops along pilgrimage routes and around the temple of Kedranath were completely destroyed, thus depriving the local population from its main means of livelihood.

What Was Shared

What got shared at the Workshop was obviously Government Rescue and Relief Activities, Post Disaster Recovery Planning and Coordination, primarily what gets termed as Social Sector Plans ( SSPs ) for key sectors –Health and Nutrition, Food Security, Livelihood, Shelter and Education and Child Protection, based on emergency needs assessment conducted in the 5 affected districts. It was claimed that post disaster recovery planning and coordination ws effectively led by the Government fo Uttarakhand in partnership with NGOs, corporate and support from United Nations Disaster Management Team ( UNDMT ). This is no place to reiterate facts and statistics of what got completed during the past 12 months by way of infrastructure rehabilitation and emergency services rendered.

What struck as rather interesting and was shared by way of ‘Capacity Building’ and ‘Long term recovery and Preparedness’ in the Workshop.  In capacity building was included training of traditional birth attendants by way of improving their skills, health –workers and masons in building disaster resistant houses ! The government also reportedly engaged engineers/geologists to conduct assessment of land stability and location vulnerability for reconstruction. Similarly the narrative included trainings provided by UNDMT to 400 persons from GoUK and NGOs on WASH, Child Protection, Hygiene Promotion and Shelter in emergencies. Admittedly there are plans prepared by government departments, NGOs and Corporate ahgencies by way of livelihood support plans, skills training, shelter and so on. So far so good and there could possibly be no quarrels or arguments about all these plans, including UNDMT’s technical support to GoUK for formulation of Housing and Corporate Social Responsibility ( CSR ) policy.

What Remained Un-shared, Not-Unveiled

What perturbed a participant who was looking forward to gaining some major insights through this Experience Sharing was an total absence of an honest acceptance on the part of the disaster management administrative architecture and functionaries as to what really went wrong at the State, District, sub-District and local community levels ? What really happened during the most crucial first 24, 48 or say 72 hours after the wee-hours of the 16th June 2013 ?  How defectively was the District Disaster Management Plan and its Standard Operating Practices ( SOPs ) were found ? In one of the TV interviews Captain Buxi, who was operating commercial flights to Kedarnath, has been heard mentioning that it was only fortuitous that there were commercial heli-flights operating which were later turned into rescue and relief sorties ! For this writer the most crucial reflection that should have been there, for every one assembled at the Sharing Experience Workshop, the officials, UNDP Team, NGOs and the Corporate representatives, should have been, what remained amiss during the follow-up, as also even in the planning stages of our DRR preparedness, which could have SUBSTANTIALLY REDUCED DISASTER LOSSES, IN LIVES AND IN SOCIAL, ECONOMIC AND ENVIRIONMENTAL ASSETS OF THE AFFECTED COMMUNITIES AND THE STATE OF UTTARAKHAND ?  

This crucial reflection, and insights on these lines, was unfortunately missing in almost all presentations and even in the queries that got raised after each presentation in this Workshop. The only exception was the closing observations made by the District Magistrate of Rudraprayag, Dr Raghav Langer, who alluded to some of these, especially what was found wanting. This writer did, however, commend Dr Raghav Langer for these insights and requested him to prepare an objective note on each of the learnings which he described orally at the Workshop, but which was not included in his actual presentation ( as this writer discovered later ).  

Stakeholder Consultation on Post 2015 Framework

The second event alluded to at the very outset of this piece, organized jointly by UNDP and Ministry of Home Affairs, actually mandates all stakeholders, primarily the Governments at the National and Sub-Nation levels, to look at these very issues. As already mentioned, at this National Consultation, held on 19 September 2014, again at New Delhi, what was discussed was a Pre-zero Draft on Post 2015 Framework, prepared by UNISDR, which acts as the Nodal Agency responsible for coordinating DRR in the UN System. UNISDR has been working with all stakeholders to develop a Draft Post-2015 DRR Agenda which would be placed before the 3rd United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction ( WCDRR ). The participants were informed that in India the various consultations have resulted in a Post HFA roadmap that includes the following :

( i ) Integrate HFA with Millennium Development Goals ( MDGs ) and Sustainable Development Agenda ( SDA ),

( ii )    Formulate Regional and National Frameworks based on HFA;

( iii )  Promote governance structures for DRR and political commitment to build resilience; and

( iv )  Focus on Climate Change, its effects, and other emerging risks such as urban risks.

Draft  on Post 2015 Framework

This Draft Framework envisages three strategic and mutually reinforcing goals, as follows:

( i ) The prevention of disaster risk creation, which requires the adoption of risk-informed growth and development measures that aim to address increase in exposure and vulnerability,

( ii )The reduction of existing disaster risk, which requires measures that address and reduce exposure and vulnerability, including preparedness for disaster response.

( iii ) The strengthening of persons, communities and countries’ disaster resilience, which requires social, economic and environmental measures that enable persons, communities and countries o absorb loss, minimize impact and cover.

This Framework includes the following four Priorities for Action :

( i )    Understanding Disaster Risk,

( ii )   Strengthening Governance to Manage Disaster Risk,

( iii )  Preparedness for Response, Recovery and Reconstruction ‘” Build Back Better”, and

( iv )  Investing in building Social, Economic and Environmental Resilience.

The Draft Framework has a number of Guiding Principles which essentially call for engagement of all stakeholders with clear roles and responsibilities towards DRR.


Many interesting points got raised during the three sessions focused on Disaster Risk Reduction, Building Community Resilience and Disaster Prevention. Some of the points that got raised revolved around the role played by the Corporates and the various aid-agencies. Given that now via the amendment in the Companies Act the CSR ( Corporate Social Responsibility ) resources from major corporate entities is going to be available it was time that the private sectors should not remained confined to relief work only, as a post facto response. Private sector has tremendous technical expertise, capacity building facilities which could be plugged-in right from the planning stages of the DRR plans. This writer gave the example how the engineering expertise of some engineering companies engaged in Tehri Hydro-power Dam came handy in 2005 when Varunavrat mountain in Uttarkashi crumbled and was repaired with the help of such companies. This case study later got reported in some international Engineering Journals ! The fact, however, remains that at the sub-National level, say our eleven mountain states, there is very little awareness towards what is being discussed in the various consultations being organized by agencies like UNDP.

Latest  Reminder : Jammu & Kashmir

If there was a need to illustrate what did not get adequately discussed at either of the two events which have been described above, the flooding of Jhelum and swelling of the Dal Lake has accomplished most tellingly ! That for the first seven days after the Great Deluge there was “NO COMMUNICATION” between the hundreds of affected villages and the outside world said it all, with all the impact at its command.

It happened in Uttarakhand first, as there was no news about the great disaster that had struck Kedarnath valley for the first three full days. By the time the flatfooted district administration could recover its wits, airlifting its ailing district magistrate out of the district headquarters, most of the casualties had taken place ! Habitations like Ram-bada had been wiped out from the existing maps. Not only immediately after the event, even 7 days after a similar tragedy had struck in far off Johar valley in Kumaon Hills, the local administration neither had any clue or was there a way to know how many families are stuck up in the High-Himalayan valleys ! This writer frustrated by the callous and indifferent attitude of the local officials had to mount a survey team consisting of local youth to go up and get a reality-check. Hundreds of families and large number of tourist were stuck up about whom no one had any news. From remote valleys in Byanse-Chaudans, in the farthest eastern corner of Kumaon Hills to the extreme recesses of the 5 border districts, no one had any clue, nor was there any way to find out what really was happening.

Tail-piece :

Most casualties were caused because of a TOTAL ABSENCE EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION. The major learning, mother of all learnings, is to immediately review and put in place a most effective, multi-modal chain of communication. Sat-phones have been tried but their locations with public institutions like ITBP or Army units has created access problems. Most of the remote hill regions experience adverse weather, without any advance notice, and no sooner the weather goes bad BSNL and other systems are shut down to prevent damage to the equipment, as well as populations ! This means that whatever communications links are there get switched off for the sake of prevention of equipments and safety of location populations ! This Catch 22 Situation, especially in the remotest parts of mountains, is an issue that has got to be addressed on top priority.

One of the solutions that has been suggested is establishment of a network of Community Radios managed by the local community. It is in this context that we all should welcome launching of Mangdakaini Ki Awaj, a Community Radio established by Peoples Power in Rudraprayag, the other day. How to set up a chain of Community Radios all over the high-Himalayan valleys, most vulnerable to extreme events and make it sustainable with the help of merging various development objectives, development communication, becomes one most important measure to build resilience of the communities most at risk. Uttarakhand must give the Community Radio Movement a big thrust and agencies like UNDP, UCOST and state governments must draw a time –bound road map to extend this facilities all over the border districts. DEAFENING SILENCE DURING THE FIRST SEVEN DAYS in the Jammu & Kashmir Valley, announcing COMMUNICATION FAILURE, must be carefully listened to. Two Disasters, Uttarakhand 2013 and Jammu & Kashmir 2014, have just One Lesson, IMPROVE COMMUNICATION AND ANCHOR IT IN THE COMMUNITIES AT-RISK !

R S Tolia

Late Dr. R.S. Tolia, Ph.D., was former Chief Secretary ( 2003-05 ) and Chief Information Commissioner ( 2005-10) of Uttarakhand. He also served in various voluntary positions after retirement and devoted his time for Mountain Development Agenda.

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