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Building A Sustainable Disaster Response System

THE surge in seawater that sent waters overflowing on the beaches of Goa recently has woken up the state government to the need for a disaster management plan. Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar has announced that he would take steps to see that a disaster management system is in place. Goa had been so far seen as safe from severe meteorological events such as cyclones which have been particularly harsh on coastal areas along the Bay of Bengal, often resulting in heavy human casualties and damages to properties. Goa had also been considered safe from other meteorological events such as high winds and storm surge. However, as the recent surge due to the cyclone Ockhi showed Goa is not as safe as it was thought to be.

The threat from meteorological phenomena is only compounded by man-made causes.  Environmental degradation has a spiraling effect of its own on the coastal environment. Coastal areas are where tourists come and therefore an unchecked development of these areas takes place there, putting the local ecology out of balance. The number of people living in the coastal areas also goes on increasing. Coastal areas have lost the natural drainage as a result. Sand dunes and vegetation are lost. Poor waste management adds to the degradation. Natural and man-made factors have caused coastal erosion. Studies after studies of coastal tourism in various parts of the world have found that among the main reasons for the continuing increase in the loss levels caused by natural disasters is the continuing growth of the population by unchecked migration of people to coastal areas that are generally more exposed to natural disasters. The development of industry in regions that are subject to natural hazards without appropriate protective measures is a major reason for the growing increase in the loss levels caused by natural disasters.

These studies and Goa’s own experience of over-construction, over-population, over-consumption and over-degradation in the coastal areas suggest that the first task of Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar in setting up a strong and purposeful disaster management plan should be to stop his government and the coastal panchayats from granting approval to any new business or construction in the coastal areas without a due environment impact assessment (EIA). The second task should be to enforce the compliance of the owners of the business or building with the EIA. There are two reasons why he should do this. One, the impacts of the hazard on the natural environment are more devastating if human interference alters the ability of natural systems to recover from such events. Two, if a disaster strikes, it may mean greater damages to human population and properties if there is great, mindless concentration of businesses, hotels and houses in the coastal areas.

The sustainability of Goa’s coastal tourism depends on the government’s ability to plan for and manage disasters with a strong disaster management infrastructure. As a coastal tourism destination Goa should be in an almost constant state of alert. The government should be constantly adapting their disaster planning and management practices to the impacts of climate change to increase their ability to effectively manage natural disasters. As studies of coastal regions have shown, when a natural disaster strikes, rescuers often have only a short time – generally referred to ‘golden hours’, meaning the initial period when a rapid response capability is vital, and when preparedness (or lack of it!) can make all the difference.

As Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar sets up the disaster management infrastructure he must not forget that it is local people who are best placed to take the first action and save lives and property and to coordinate the return to normality. It is the degree to which local people are prepared for disasters that determines how vulnerable or resilient their community will be to disasters. It showed during the flooding of the beaches with the Ockhi surge. It was shack workers and local people who took the first action to save their property and alert people about the danger. However, managing a disaster requires trained manpower and equipment, and in regard to both, the ability of the local people is highly limited. The Chief Minister must reanimate the forgotten idea of setting up a robust disaster response team in every coastal village. This team should be equipped with technology, knowledge and up-to-date information on weather and alerts on natural events. Their members should be given training and helped to develop capacity to adopt technologies and practices that prevent ecological degradation. They can blend their traditional knowledge and ecological prudence with the modern technologies to make a sustainable disaster management base.

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