Cascading Disasters : In The Quest of Risk Reduction - ICN INDIA

Cascading Disasters : In The Quest of Risk Reduction

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By: Prof. Santosh Kumar

Key words : Disaster, Sendai framework, , COVID-19, Pandemic, Poverty, Inequality , finance commission, UN, Risk, community, peoples movement , PM 10 point agenda

NEW DELHI: Disaster Management System for long attributed to disaster response- evacuation, search, rescue and taking them in relief camps. Entire system, code and practices were around the post disaster scenario . This approach did not yield much result in reducing the number of deaths, affected people and loss to the economy. Gradually most of the countries realised it as a great learning, including India and agreed for pre disaster risk reduction from the post disaster response and relief. The biggest loss -both in terms of deaths and economic loss, COVID-19 has created a history .  Across the globe this has been the costliest disaster in the recent history of mankind. Global communities have agreed to reduce disaster risk with  more  systemic approach in a systematic manner. By becoming the signatory of the UN Sendai framework for disaster Risk reduction 2015-30. It is assumed rather established about the people’s behaviour that they behave rationally for making rational choices, barring few exceptions. And, so is expected from governance and risk governance too. Governments of more than 176 countries of the World have made a conscious choice of reducing disaster risk ex-ante to ex-post. On an economy of scale and also reducing the misery and deaths pre disaster risk reduction is found to be much more beneficial than reacting to post disaster for only response and relief distribution.

Today, when I sat for writing this piece I was thinking about risk quantification by modelling as it is being done across the globe using deterministic and probabilistic models. This is done on the basis of data available of disasters that happened in the past. COVID-19 has given “surprise” not “astonished”. The difference is of degree of unknown . When one does not expect and it happens, and the other is aware that it may happen but do not know when ? Disasters are combining these two permutations and combinations and making the event uncertain. The higher the uncertainties ( leading to less preparedness) leading to  a greater loss. If we may convert unknown to known ( by developing early warning/research etc) the probability of  loss would be lesser than before.  These two analogies   could be used in  New  institutional system for disaster management that is very new, started only after 2005 which is still to take shape. Many disasters in India are of trans-boundary nature, in the absence of pre information,  which also keep giving surprises e.g. Brahmaputra in Assam , Bengal connection with China and in the downstream West Bengal . And, in Bihar, Nepal connection for flood management is important to understand for UP and Bihar floods. In such situations, regional process and regional institutions like SAARC, BIMSTEC, ASEAN could be very crucial in sharing information . This would help in moving from unknown to known disaster which might give some time to prepare. 

Serving the people with the combination of science and society approach  would be a better proposition. Since we are dealing with uncertainties (Disaster Risk Management), it is even more important that we may work for quantification of disaster risks and making it unknown to known quantified risks.  Development in the science and technology sector  could be a possible help where we may integrate. Although, it might not fulfil our quest fully as it has its own limitations but in this evolution process this could be a worthy friend to be trusted as we have seen its recent success in giving early warning of any cyclonic storms which is saving millions of lives which would have perished in its absence.  However, in the unknown cascading disaster scenario, it has its own limitations.( Japan tsunami 2013- earthquake leading to Tsunami, tsunami leading to flooding and flooding leading to nuclear emergency) . The challenge is how to quantify cascading risks as that is totally a case of astonishment and unpredictable which is happening with the predictable disasters?

Until the advent of modern physics, it was generally perceived or thought that all knowledge of the world could be obtained from direct observation as seeing is believing. As things are what they seem. As perceived through our senses. But the grand advent of modern physics, which is based upon concepts given by Richard Feynman, who worked at the California Institute of Technology, a system has not just one history but every possible history. In the history of science, we have discovered a sequence of better and better theories and models. Stephen Hawking & Leonardo Mlodinow in their treatise’ The Grand Design’ , from Plato to the classical theory of Newton to modern quantum theories. Will this sequence eventually reach an endpoint, an ultimate theory of the universe, that will predict every observation we can make, or will we continue forever finding better theories, but never one that can be improved upon?  And then talks about the” M-theory (theory of everything)  is the answer to the above question. which talks about that M theory is the only model that has all the properties we think the final theory has all the properties the final theory ought to have.”

On the other hand when science was evolving society too was progressing across the globe with different sets of knowledge, experience and beliefs. Society always had a different notion about the universe in a different point of time. The knowledge of society about the universe was evolving too. In 340 BC Aristotle in his book, on the heavens, said that earth was a ground ball and talked about the eclipse of the moon that was coming which was caused by earth coming between the sun and the moon. The ideas were later explained and elaborated by Ptolemy in the first AD a cosmological model The earth stood at the centre surrounded by eight spheres. Later in 1514, Nicholas Copernicus explained that the sun was stationary at the centre and the earth and the planets moved in circular orbits around the sun. Then Galileo, Copernicus compounded their theories and modified the previous theories. In 1687, Newton said that gravity causes the moon to move in an elliptical orbit around the earth and causes the earth and the planets to follow elliptical paths around the sun. And science kept moving, enhancing the knowledge of the society.

During the evolution process ( science and society) humankind also faced catastrophic wrath of nature. In the ancient time, the power of GOD was predominant in the creation of the universe and hence people use to believe that disaster is the act of god and nothing is in the hands of people who can do something about it and they accepted it as fate accompli. Later, it was accepted and defined as the wrath of nature and it is happening due to various natural activities. So nature is more powerful than the human being. So we had different policy and strategies. Now it is being said as disaster is more anthropogenic than due to nature. It is us who are responsible for catastrophic events and hence it is our responsibility to find ex ante solution..

How much unknown is really unknown? I would refer again COVID -19 as it is still with us and the wrath of it humankind is facing on a daily basis. Also, It is one disasters that has affected every human being directly or indirectly. And, people  are maintaining all its protocol for reducing the risks of getting affected with the virus.  FOR PANDEMIC there was a report,” Pandemic Risk by Olga B.Jones, The World Bank 2013 which says,” Pandemic risk combines a low probability (1-3 percent annually) with high impact (over $3 trillion in a severe case). The annual risk is at least $30 billion, but people, firms, and governments grossly underestimated and could not comprehend it. No country is safe. In an interconnected world, a pathogen from a remote village can reach major cities on all continents in 36 hours.” We have seen how it travelled from Wuhan city of China to Europe, to Asia to South Asia and India. It is in a true sense trans-boundary disaster. This cannot be wiped out unless all global communities get engaged together in putting all efforts for it from vaccine development to its treatment. The cost of public health is huge to poor or developing countries. They too might require the support of the rich countries in fighting with COVID-19. The uncertainties about the pandemic ( it is not a black swan event as it was a known event) was already highlighted with the possible consequences in the report of 2013. The ignorance about the certainties made it uncertain and led to huge consequences which are still going on and now we are not sure when this is going to stop. Everyday the no of deaths and positive cases are changing to higher mark.

I was correlating the narratives  of local capacity for disaster response and preparedness,  as a case of my own elder  brother when he became one of the victims of covid-19,  just 59 years old very healthy and hearty  who got infected by COVID-19  in the last week of July 2020 in Patna, the state Capital of Bihar and succumbed to it within his 6 days of ailment (his unfortunate demise  may or may not be attributed to  local capacity of testing facilities, quarantine facilities, admission in the hospital, treatment and care to the patient in AIIMS Patna . Nothing could be done from the available local  public health system especially in Bihar. Had it been a strong local public health care system  could have saved hundreds of lives. The uncertainties of the COVID -19 was there but many known risks could have been avoided. 

The World has to treat such disasters and uncertainties in the light of climate change and the underlying drivers of risks differently. The business as usual will not work. We may have to go for serious reimagining of the actions of SDGs. In India, The PM ten point agenda Sendai Framework and the 15th Finance commission’s allocation for ex-ante investment for risk reduction is a hope in bringing down the disaster mortality and the number of affected people. Even a single  death in the family can be seen as a challenge for the future. The 15th Finance commission which has submitted its report on the 5th November 2020 has allocated its resource on the basis of risk exposures of the states rather than the expenditure based criteria. This itself is a new direction.

For the financial year 2020-21, out of total centre and state corpus INR 41373 crores ,for the ex-ante disaster mitigation and capacity building INR 8275 has been allocated. This is first time in the history of disaster management India,  disaster risk reduction for pre disaster period has been given financial allocation as grant. It is hope that that it will bring many new initiatives in dealing with uncertainties of disaster risks. 

The capacity  development grant , ex-ante mitigation fund and long term disaster recovery at the local levels can also help states in building strong local capacity and in making disaster risk management as new peoples movement .State governments have also an opportunity for making public health stronger by integrating disaster risk management with public health too. In the recent webinar which NIDM /UNESCAP/SAARC and BIMSTEC  had organised on disaster and Covid-19 these recommendations may work as guidelines for the future are :

(i) Promoting disaster risk reduction measures viz., multi-hazard early warning systems and resilient infrastructure as a public good, (ii) Using existing global frameworks that address the disaster-health/pandemic nexus along with investments in green recovery to build back better  (iii) Using existing regional cooperation mechanisms to scale up the pathways of putting in place people’s health at the Centre of disaster resilience in South Asia.

In addition, disaster risk reduction is not a hardware activity alone. It is much to do with softer activities. Any government will not have capacity and resources for reducing the risk of every individual, community, infrastructure( hospitals, schools, housing, roads, bridges, rail, port etc.). It has to be community-led by empowering people who are at risk. Public awareness, incentivising initiative, facilitating community initiatives, building or enhancing communities knowledge, skills and strengthening public institutions who all are working with them. It’s time to take action to make invisible visible. Post disasters might take high attention but it has not yielded a substantial result despite huge expenditure in relief. It is short-lived. The response is essential but not to eclipse ex-ante risk reduction. In the time of climate change, pandemic, transboundary and cascading disasters, now  it’s a time  for re-imagining or approach . We, as an individual ,need to take a pledge for risk reduction. Vicious cycles must be broken if we wish to continue to draw the dividends of development and attain the promises of SDG.  Its time for behavioural change. There is an urgent need to have people’s engagement in the  process of building resilience by making it a people’s movement. .

Prof.Santosh Kumar,PhD

Professor & Head
Governance, Policy Planning & Inclusive DRR
National Institute of Disaster Management
Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt. of India
SAARC Disaster Management Centre,
Executive Director, (I/C)
National Institute of Disaster Management, MHA, Govt of India
Disaster Management Specialist, The World Bank
Professor & Head, Centre for Disaster Management, HCM RIPA, Jaipur
Deputy Director, Research, UP Academy of Administration, Nainital



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