By Rajbir Deswal
The devastating cyclone in Myanmar on May 2 and the high-intensity earthquake in China on May 12 have revived the debate on disaster management. What should be done to minimise the suffering of the affected people? Who can be more useful in taking care of the surviving victims? It is always better to keep adequately informed the people living in the disaster-prone areas about the dangers they are likely to face. They should be properly trained to cope with the crisis before any outside assistance is made available to them. Then the government will need to provide only rehabilitation assistance. This requires some investment and advance planning, but the difference it makes to the efforts for saving human lives, fauna and flora as well as property is enormous.
When the latest earthquake rattled China the dam in the area developed cracks and the entire population downstream was forced to live in trauma. The after-shocks of the earthquake made people sleep in the open. However, China, being adequately geared up to meet the situation, the people in the earthquake-hit areas did not feel the impact of the disaster as much as did those in the Irrawaddy river delta in Myanmar devastated by the cyclone Nargis. The refusal of the military junta in Myanmar to welcome help being offered by other countries made the situation worse.
It is really shocking to know that despite 49 advisory bulletins sent by the Delhi-based Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre to Myanmar from April 28 to May 2, when Nargis caused devastation in that country, Yangon did not take the matter seriously. Its response in time and in accordance with the gravity of the calamity must have minimised considerably the damage in terms of human lives lost and property destroyed.
The onset of a cyclone is gradual. Putting the available resources in operational mode is possible. Devastation by a cyclone in a specific zone generally has a seasonal pattern. Hence, unlike earthquakes, which are almost unpredictable, cyclones can be handled with enough safeguards. With early warnings, much of damage can be avoided.
India has a coastline of about 8000 kilometres with 8 per cent of its land being vulnerable to cyclones. The devastation caused by recent the disasters in India, — whether it was the Bhuj earthquake, the Tsunami in the Andeman Nicobar Islands, or the super cyclone in Orissa — has alerted the policy makers. There is readiness to tackle the situation in the wake of a natural disaster.
But what is lacking in India is that there is no army of foot-soldiers or “first responders” to handle a disaster. It should always be borne in mind that it is only the local community that comes to the rescue of the victims immediately in a catastrophe. Arming this community with awareness, training and equipment is highly desirable.
The general public should be made aware of the typical characteristics of disasters. For example, if the eye of a storm is passing through a certain area, there will be slight lull and the sky may be clear for some time. Then suddenly the cyclone may strike and play havoc. A properly informed and trained community can prepare itself to safely face the situation during the time between the lull and the visit of the storm.
The rescue, relief and rehabilitation tasks are quite difficult to undertake when the disaster has already struck. An early warning system can be of great help if it is taken with all seriousness. But there is must always be advance planning.
A cyclone catching the community and the government unawares leaves no scope for an on-the-spot assessment for some time. Bad weather conditions continue for a long time, and even relief arriving from other quarters goes waste due to its being dumped. After the lapse of the crucial first 72 hours, the authorities generally are complacent or exhausted, particularly because of the fact that all hopes of rescuing those trapped or missing are gone.
A well-rehearsed disaster management plan takes these factors in view and prioritises the tasks accordingly. The managers know when to stop looking for the dead and devote their time and energy to relief and rehabilitation. They also know what alternative channels of information, transportation, etc, are available to them.
The aftermath of a disaster is the most difficult situation to handle. The authorities get busy with the tasks of disposal of the dead and attending to the injured and the vulnerable people. The idea of minimising the damages and mitigating the miseries of the disaster-hit should always be there in the minds of the planners.
Myanmar ‘massacre’ or Cyclone Nargis–Not heeding the advisories
By Rajbir Deswal
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