Monday, May 29, 2023

There Are No Natural Disasters

Disaster Management

There Are No Natural Disasters

Disasters on the scale we see are human-made and based on poor planning and mindless construction

Learning From Disaster: Widows in Kutch help build seismic-safe houses Photos Courtsey: Praveen Singh Pardeshi

Twenty-nine years ago in September 1993, I was rudely woken up by the earth shaking.  I knew that an earthquake had happened but not where. At 32, I had been District Collector of Latur district for 2 years. Latur was frequently affected by droughts. In 1992, I had just undertaken a massive drought mitigation when Latur faced 60 percent deficit rains. However, I had never handled an earthquake.

Killari, a village in Ausa taluka, Latur district, on the banks of the Terna river, was the epicentre of a 6.4 magnitude earthquake. People in hot and water-scarce Latur in Marathawada lived in wadas: thick, stone masonry walls held together with mud plaster. The lateral movement of earth  caused by a slip along the fault line along the Terna river wreaked destruction across 50 villages, killing 8500 people and destroying over 3,00,000 houses.

A few months later, the North Ridge earthquake hit California: it measured 6.7 on the Richter scale but only 57 people died, though it occurred in crowded Los Angeles. Why did the much weaker Killari earthquake cause nearly 8,500 deaths while the many times more powerful earthquake in Los Angeles cause fewer deaths?

Years later, in 2005, when I was working at the United Nations Secretariat for International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction, I learnt that there are no natural disasters, only natural hazards. Disasters measured in terms of loss of life and economic assets and livelihoods are human-made. How is the earthquake disaster of Latur or the devastating tsunami of Aceh, Indonesia human-made? Earthquakes and tsunamis are caused by natural geo-tectonic forces and humans can neither induce an earthquake nor prevent a tsunami caused by an earthquake on the ocean floor. Earthquakes and tsunamis are natural hazards but the human destruction they cause to life, property and livelihoods is purely human-made, given risky and unsafe construction and lack of preparedness and early warning systems.

An earthquake­—a natural hazard—becomes a disaster when people build homes, infrastructure and assets for their livelihoods without conforming to seismic safe building codes. North Ridge in California is on an active fault line and in a seismic zone and city administration enforce strict seismic safety codes which ensured that even an earthquake of magnitude 7, causing gigantic  lateral shaking to buildings, did not lead to their collapse, thus averting loss of life and livelihoods.

Learning From Disaster: Latur earthquake (Bottom left) Aceh flattened (Bottom Right) Earthquake-safe
Learning From Disaster: Latur earthquake; (Bottom left) Aceh flattened; (Bottom Right) Earthquake-safe houses Photos Courtsey: Praveen Singh Pardeshi

People in Latur and Killari had built traditional homes with stones and mud, without using even traditional seismic-safe stone masonry techniques. Even traditional stone and mud masonry houses can be earthquake-safe if the walls have properly placed stones to bind them and continuous wooden beams running through the perimeter of the walls at lintel level of all windows and doors to ensure that the house would behave like a monolithic structure, resistant to earthquakes. People in Latur had built thick walls to protect themselves against the heat but, over the years, as there had been no earthquake in living memory, earthquake-resistant stone masonry was not used by local masons.

An earthquake—a natural hazard­­—becomes a disaster when people build homes, infrastructure and assets for their livelihoods without conforming to seismic safe building codes.

Hence, when the earthquake struck the Terna valley, stone and mud walls moved differentially with respect to the lateral force and walls came apart at the corners, cracks travelled from the foundation and spread across to the  unprotected lintel levels, causing roof collapses and burying the people sleeping inside. Moreover, Latur was classified in Earthquake Zone 1 (least risk of earthquake ) and the Bureau of Indian Standards had not made any seismic safety building codes applicable.

Immediate Relief and Rescue

Immediately after the earthquake in Latur, I had to organise rescue and relief for over 50,000 families rendered homeless and destitute, with loss of savings and food grains under the debris. We followed a whole-government approach: I coordinated across the forest, irrigation, water supply and revenue departments in daily meetings to resolve each issue and solicited feedback the next day on action taken.

Within the next two weeks, we put up Galvanised Iron (GI) sheets framed by wooden poles as temporary shelters for the dis-housed. I also ensured a continuous supply of potable water, with free cooked food for the first two weeks followed by free dry rations for the next six months. I was told by a relief worker from Médicines Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) who had worked in the 1988 Armenian earthquake that more people died of the cold and being rendered shelterless there compared to those who lost their lives trapped under collapsed buildings here. Our whole-government approach at the district level ensured that not a single life was lost after the earthquake due to lack of shelter or food.  That it rained daily in September 1993 did not help. Similarly, post-disaster losses due to the spread of water-borne diseases like cholera are frequent. Being a drought-affected district, every scarcity season, I had to organise water tankers to water-scarce villages. We used a similar system to supply potable water to all temporary sheds where we had housed dis-housed families thereby averting a post-disaster pandemic.

Post-Disaster Reconstruction

I realised that one cannot run away from an earthquake. Initially, people were asking to be relocated as their perception of the earthquake was to move away from the original earthquake affected gaothan (village site) to a distant place. It took much convincing to convey the understanding that earthquake safety lies in building seismic safe houses and not in relocation.  In Latur, with a Zone 4 risk level, houses needed to incorporate lintel, plinth and roof level concrete bands which make even load-bearing houses seismically safe.

Before and After Aceh, Indonesia before and after the tsunami of 2004
Before and After Aceh, Indonesia before and after the tsunami of 2004

With World Bank (WB) assistance, I identified the most devastated villages as per the Mercalli scale of intensity of damage ISO seismic zone of 9. We began construction, following the Bureau of Indian Standards-prescribed seismic safety guidelines consistent with Zone 4 (highest level) earthquake risk level. Many global and Indian civil society organisations pitched in. I evolved a bilateral MoU where district administration provided land, earthquake-safe building design, water and electricity, while NGOs and large religious charities like Ram Krishna Mission, CARITAS, Cooperative for Resistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), Awareness, Service and Action (CASA), Tata Trust and associations of private developers like the Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry (MCHI) enabled people’s participation and constructed homes.

Under WB procurement guidelines, global tendering was mandatory to engage large contractors to build fail-safe houses. Following the whole-government approach I held daily meetings with water supply, electricity and revenue departments to resolve issues in daily construction and people’s grievances. Within three months, villages with seismically safe houses were ready and handed over in Talni, Ganjan kheda and Mangrul. However, I soon noticed that many homeowners had constructed GI sheet sheds outside their new houses. They slept at night in sheds while they kept their valuables inside the newly constructed houses. They didn’t believe that these were earthquake-safe.

Our whole-government approach at the district level ensured that not a single life was lost after the earthquake due to lack of shelter or food.

The work was highly stressful and my father, pratap Singh, a retired Group Captain, decided to come over and give me moral support. After accompanying me on a couple of visits to the villages under construction, he began nudging me to understand that getting contractors to build houses while homeowners sat idle, was a recipe for failure. He reiterated that true participation meant that the government guides the people through appropriate seismic safety guidelines and provides financial assistance while people rebuild their own homes.

The WB had a problem with this approach: their procurement guidelines required global tendering and no advances: payments were made only after the work was done. How could we advance funds to home owners? I experimented with one village, Pardhewadi, in partnership with Manavlok, by providing affected house owners an initial cash instalment with an understanding that they would get the next instalment if they built the foundation as per seismic guidelines. We recruited one contractual engineer for every 100 houses.

Each engineer’s responsibility was to certify that house owners had constructed houses as per seismic safe guidelines so that they could get the next instalment. A new process of owner-driven construction was born: the government and the WB partnered to provide the best seismic safety guidelines, procured cement and steel in material depots and provided decentralised technical assistance to house owners through village-based engineers, while house owners personally constructed and supervised the masons.

A third party post-rehabilitation evaluation of the project drew very counter-intuitive conclusions. While 95 percent of the nearly 200,000 houseowners who built their own houses with assistance from the government to the tune of merely Rs 15,000 rupees in three installments expressed total satisfaction and trusted the earthquake safety of their homes. On the other hand, house owners of the 30,000 houses constructed by contractors, costing from Rs 1.5 to 2.4 lakh, were not fully satisfied and only 70 percent said that their houses were earthquake-safe.

I learnt my lesson: to build back better, to use the opportunity of destruction caused by an earthquake, to rebuild with risk reduction techniques requires communities to own and accept new technology and processes. Once people built their own Rs 15,000, earthquake-safe homes, they had imbibed the knowledge. A striking result was that the incremental houses that they constructed for their newly-married offspring also incorporated earthquake safety.

Social Rehabilitation

Many children were orphaned and women widowed, leading to new, woman-headed farming households. The news of orphaned children drew an outpouring of sympathy, with even the then prime minister’s daughter expressing an interest in adopting an orphaned child. I learnt many principles iof the sensitive handling of unaccompanied minor children. Instead of adoption by foreigners or distant strangers, the children were happier to be with surviving members of the biological family: maternal uncles or even paternal grandparents.

To use the opportunity of destruction caused by an earthquake, to rebuild with risk reduction techniques requires communities to own and accept new technology and processes.

We used some well-meaning NGOs like the UNICEF-supported Child Rights and You (CRY) and rigorously monitored each case in the Court of Wards so that every child was placed with the biological family member with whom she felt happier. Each orphaned child was entitled to a large sum of ex gratia payment. I ensured that it was kept in a fixed deposit in the child’s name and their biological caring family could utilise the interest accrued for care.

I had started weekly visits to each care-giving family, via CRY, to monitor the welfare of orphaned children who were with their surviving biological family members. As many lands were jointly cultivated by brothers, there was the risk that the surviving brother would appropriate the share of the minor, orphaned child. I took special efforts to separate the land share of orphaned children from other members of their family and kept entries on record of right that such lands would not be transferred until the child became a major at 21. I did the same for women-headed households. We separated the land share of the surviving wife and also supported women to cultivate their own lands with support from NGOs like Stree Adhar Kendra.

The Kutch Earthquake

Nearly 7 years later, while I was working as Secretary to Vilasrao Deshmukh, then chief minister of Maharashtra and who had also been my district minister in Latur, the earth shook violently again. I thought Latur had another quake but the epicentre was in Bhuj, Kutch. When my friends who were working for the UN in Kutch invited me to visit and see the damage for myself, I went around the quake-struck villages for two days and also met local NGO, Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) and their federal group Abhiyan.

While families in Latur after the quake had been in deep depression, their grief had touched me deeply, and I was constantly mentally stressed by the tragedy. On the other hand, Kutch had lost nearly 10,000 people over a much larger area than Latur but the affected people had a very resilient outlook. One lady sitting on the debris of her fallen house smiled at me and even rustled up a sweet cup of tea when I asked her about the earthquake. My heart was taken.

I told Chief Minister (CM) Vilasraoji that I was resigning from post of secretary to CM to work in Kutch. He was taken aback but gave me permission saying it is rarely that officer leaves the protection of a CM’s office to go into the unknown. In Kutch, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) gave me a job as Coordinator for the Kutch Rehabilitation Programme. Here I made a presentation to the then CM, Keshubhai Patel, that it would be better to rehabilitate villages in situ as earthquake safety lies in seismically safe construction. The gut reaction of every one was to rapidly start centralised reconstruction.  I put forth the case that owner-driven construction supervised by trained engineers would be the most fitting way to harness the resilience of the people of Kutch to build back better. To demonstrate this approach even before the WB-assisted programme could start, I mobilised funds for UNDP Kutch and we built over 1600 owner-driven houses, supervised by experienced engineers who had been trained by the Latur earthquake.  We selected only earthquake-affected widows to assist with the first 1000 houses, with Kutch Abhiyan and UNDP facilitating the project. The larger WB programme began after the UNDP and the KMVS had completed the first 1200 seismically safe houses which served as a good benchmark for the process of involving houseowners and the technology and training required for engineers and masons. The Gujarat State Disaster Management Agency, ably conceived and coordinated by Shri P.K. Misra, under the leadership of the then new and dynamic CM, and current PM, Shri Narendra Modiji transformed the Gujarat Earthquake Rehabilitation project into a global best practice one. The quality of earthquake safe construction and the participation of local villages in planning stood out. Even small, destroyed taluka towns like Rapar, Anjar and Bhuj were built back better by the government.

Earthquakes and Tsunamis Around the World

As head of the UNDP’s Post-Crises Recovery cluster in Geneva, I was leading all of UNDP’s global efforts at post-crises recovery from 2002 to 2006. When the tsunami struck Aceh in 2004, I led the UNDP’s post-tsunami recovery programme. A key lesson I presented which was accepted by the government of Indonesia was to rebuild back better but in situ. Even in Aceh, there was a move to resettle tsunami-affected villages inland away from the sea. I pointed to the lesson from the 1992 Flores tsunami reconstruction under General Suharto: three years after reconstruction, all the rehabilitated villagers had moved back to the original seaside location. Their livelihoods depended upon accessing the sea daily for fishing: their boats could be anchored in high tide to their houses, and they could slip into their boats to set out for fishing daily from their sea side houses raised on stilts. In the UNDP-led recovery plan that I drafted, owner-driven earthquake safe construction was the key pillar. Fortunately, by the time of the Indonesian tsunami in 2004, owner-driven construction for rural areas had become a WB ‘good practice’ and is now documented in the WB Handbook on Post Disaster Housing and Community Reconstruction.

Owner-driven construction supervised by trained engineers would be the most fitting way to harness the resilience of the people of Kutch.

Rehabilitation in Pakistan

When an earthquake struck Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir in 2005, I was tasked with creating a model for post-earthquake reconstruction, factoring in risk reduction. When I visited villages in PoK, I found that the Pakistan Earthquake Rehabilitation Authority (PERA) had already begun disbursing cash grants and people were rapidly rebuilding with same non-earthquake safe techniques. I explained how an earthquake is an opportunity, as the accumulated risks of previous faulty constructions had been wiped clean by the quake. Now they could rebuild back better, factoring in risk mitigation. We organised telecon meetings between the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority to share their good practices with the PERA, newly created by Pakistan.

Institutional reforms

When the Latur earthquake struck in 1993, there was no institutional mechanism nor any legal framework to manage earthquakes and disasters in general. After the Kutch earthquake, India’s visionary PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji, set up a national commission to propose a legal framework for managing disasters. The National Disaster Management Act (NDMA) was passed and the National Disaster Management Authority and state disaster management authorities were created based on the model of the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority. The NDMA has created a National Hazard risk map which has identified areas at risk of floods, earthquakes, and cyclones. NDMA has also proposed guidelines for risk reduction to prevent disasters before they happen: seismic-safe construction codes for earthquake zones, cyclone-safe construction standards, zoning in flood-prone areas to avoid construction in river valleys etc. We shared India’s National Disaster Management Act which Pakistan borrowed it in toto as recognised international good practice.

Extreme Weather, Extreme Hazard

As global warming gathers pace, extreme weather events like cyclones and floods are predicted to increase. Maharashtra faces floods in the Krishna valley and in Mumbai year after year. Traditional flood mitigation measures like widening storm water drains, pumping out flood waters into the sea or enforcing a ban on construction in red zones in the flood plains of Sangli and Kolhapur are no longer effective as people have already built homes and infrastructure in flood-prone zones. Further, as the built up area expands, the rate of percolation in the ground falls  below 0.5 units, and in cities like Mumbai, run-off is over 0.9 units during rainfall. For such emerging climate scenarios, diverting surplus water into underground rivers and storing it for future use is a possible solution, which Maharashtra is exploring. Tokyo has successfully diverted the flood waters of Edo river in huge man-made underground channels and reservoirs.

As climate change makes disaster more frequent, India and the world has to remember past disasters and build a culture of prevention and risk reduction before hazard strikes. The Finance commission has set aside huge funds for mitigation. The NDMA and Capacity-Building Commission are collaborating with state disaster management authorities to enhance the capacity of states to utilise mitigation funds and prevent disasters.

(Views expressed are personal)

Praveen Singh Pardeshi the writer is former municipal commissioner of mumbai and member administration at the capacity building commission, GOI