Five Disaster Resilience Lessons We Can Learn from India

Preparing sandbags to prevent flooding in India, which takes a pro-active stance in preparing for disasters. Photo: ADB
Preparing sandbags to prevent flooding in India, which takes a pro-active stance in preparing for disasters. Photo: ADB

By Archana Patankar

India is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to disasters and it has a lot to share when it comes to preparing for them.

India is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world given its geophysical and climatic conditions. Since the 1980s, flooding has accounted for almost half of natural disasters in the country affecting more than 750 million people and causing $58 billion of losses. Global warming and climate change are expected to increase the frequency and intensity of such disasters. Impacts of floods will also be greater with increasing population, rapid urbanization, infrastructure expansion in high-risk zones and millions of people residing in informal slum settlements in poor and destitute conditions.

A recent study, published by ADB, focused on devastating rainfall and flooding in Mumbai, Chennai and Puri district in India to study the impacts on households and small businesses. Mumbai and Chennai are megacities where millions of people reside or travel for work from nearby regions. These cities are important manufacturing and financial hubs and contribute immensely to the regional and national economies. Their coastal location, land reclamation and rapid infrastructure expansion make them most vulnerable to large-scale floods. Puri district, in comparison, is predominantly rural with people depending on agriculture, fishing and tourism for livelihood. Primary surveys among flood-affected families and businesses, and secondary data such as government reports, offer interesting insights into vulnerability, impacts and responses to disasters.

  Lessons from India on disaster resilience.

Here are five important lessons we can learn from this study:

The poor are the most vulnerable: Extreme floods could devastate these families because of their low incomes, poor-quality housing, and settlements in low-lying and flood-prone areas. They suffer from damage or destruction of assets in which their life savings are invested (house and household goods) and assets on which their livelihoods depend (work tools and livestock). It is difficult for people to rebuild their lives and restore assets to pre-disaster levels with limited resources. Threats to critical assets might push poor families affected by disasters into indebtedness and poverty and negate the gains made by poverty alleviation programs over the years.

Partial compensation does not provide adequate social protection: Households were offered fixed compensation to assist with immediate needs such as food and clothing. But this amounted to less than 10% of total losses. Many families, such as migrant workers or those who lost identity and property documents, were excluded from compensation for failing to meet eligibility criteria. Families with limited resources and lack of access to compensation or social protection have had to use their savings or borrow from informal sources, thus pushing them into poverty.

Low insurance coverage: Penetration levels of general insurance are dismally low in India. The majority of the affected families had no insurance of any kind, let alone property or flood insurance. Even when families opted for insurance, claim settlements were lengthy, time consuming, and generally did not cover the full extent of the losses.

Impacts on businesses: Small manufacturing units and retail businesses suffered damage to premises, equipment and products. They were at greater risk than larger businesses because of their limited technical and financial capacity and absence of business continuity plans. Further, only a few businesses have had flood insurance and received claimed amounts after months of delay. Small businesses usually take longer to recover and lose customer confidence as a result. Many are not able to repay loans taken earlier and many more have to borrow or use their savings to rebuild. Loss of credit and clients increases their distress and some of them are forced to sell the assets and shut shop.

Implications for disaster management: Many affected people have shared experiences about rescue and relief operations after floods, which show how well-intentioned efforts may not reach the victims. In Chennai, for example, rescue operations and relief material only reached houses located along the roadside and not in interiors. When food packets and other material were airdropped, they were often scattered and wasted. In many places, people did not receive flood warnings and by the time they realized the intensity of rains, water had already entered their homes. Few families that had been relocated from flood prone to ‘safer’ areas in the past were affected once again.

  In developing countries, a social safety net is needed to catch those affected before they spiral into poverty.

These lessons and insights indicate that there is an urgent need to plan for a protective insurance and social safety net for people affected by disasters, in order to prevent their downward spiral into poverty and debt. This should be considered while designing policies and plans for building disaster resilience.

These lessons also point towards the need to build long-term resilience to climate risks for which local governments and disaster management institutions need to formulate a roadmap for flood preparedness and disaster risk reduction. This can be achieved through an integrated flood risk management approach that combines flood control structures with flood forecasting and early warning systems. In urban areas, this would also require integration with wastewater and solid waste management and redesigning and widening current stormwater drainage systems.

In order to achieve this, flood risk management needs to be mainstreamed into planning mechanisms at state and district levels. Disaster management institutions also need to be strengthened further and interlinked with other planning and regulatory authorities. Success of disaster risk reduction strategies will ultimately rest on how well communities are sensitized and involved in improving the local disaster preparedness.

This blog post is based on research from the April 2019 Asian Development Outlook.