Disasters: Do we have the ingredients?

The successive floods of 2016, 2017 and 2018 remind us all too bitterly that the National Disaster Scheme may have been left to idle away in some office drawer

The scenes of flooded thoroughfares and village suburbs, the poignant drama of the individual stories, the sense of chaotic improvisation in the management of the consequences of the heavy downpours, the indignation with highly insensitive remarks about protocols and holiday camps for refugees, the gratitude to all stretched public essential and emergency services, have subsided as they normally do after every episode of heavy rains.

We have known downpours, floodings and blocked drains for years now, we have had several technical and specialist reports since as far back as 2003, when I seem to recall Gibb conducted and delivered perhaps the first comprehensive study, survey of flood-prone areas and made budgeted recommendations for corrective actions for the authorities. We heard then, as we do now, the same analyses almost word-for-word about, amongst others, our lackadaisical building and development permits, the insufficient attention to drainage canals and infrastructure on a slopy island, the pace of urbanisation, the irresponsibility of the population and the absence of alternatives for getting rid of cumbersome waste and refuse.

Again in 2008 and 2013, when the relatively new phenomenon of a flash-flood with its intense precipitation over a relatively brief time-span, created havoc, drama, lost lives, international headlines and a national trauma, new reports were commissioned. Rightly so, and emergency works of several hundred million Rs were ordered in the aftermath to cater for the most vulnerable areas, even if, following the last elections, those responsible for taking emergency actions were unfairly and unjustly vilified. A National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management structure (NDRRMC) was setup, a National Disaster Scheme 2014 (NDS) evolved and legislation for a Land Drainage Authority pipelined.

With global climate changes, we may no longer be able to predict with relative certainty the cyclonic activity or the heavy rainfalls of any given year. Since 2015 we have had in effect renewed episodes of downpours and massive flooding following stormy weather conditions every single year, with the associated episodes not only of human dramas but jarring economic losses at national level. In march 2015 when most of the country and cabinet members were still revelling in the scale of the electoral outcome and its implications, when many dramatic decisions were being taken elsewhere, it befell the then Minister of the Environment Raj Dayal to take charge of emergency actions after the mammoth rain and floods that saw some villages like Baie du Tombeau, Fond du Sac again entirely drowned under.

Six months later, the Minister and his services claimed credit for amending and circulating a slightly revised ‘National Disasters Scheme Edition Oct 2015’, which details with formidable command and control philosophy, the relevant actions of each and every ministry, public department and agency directly or indirectly concerned with risk reduction, preparedness, and management before, during and in the aftermath of a natural disaster, such as cyclone, torrential rain, and tsunami.

The Scheme in its minutely profuse approach details the local, regional and National Crisis Committees, Command Centres and their interlinkages, the action tasks before, during and after national disasters, the hourly and daily situation reports expected from one and all, bref, a superb Command and Control regimental document that required to be operationalised, i.e. rolled out to all government agencies, tried, tested and fine-tuned, ready for the next challenge.

It might be worth noting that the NDS makes the following General Preparedness imperative for all District and Municipal Councils:

(i) Take all preparedness actions prior to the cyclonic season. These should include carrying out of surveys to identify vulnerable areas/communities and inadequate drainage system and take remedial actions. Ensure cleaning and maintenance of drains, and canals. Enforce measures against illegal dumping in rivers, canals and drains.

 (ii) Carry out sensitization campaigns for local communities in their respective areas of jurisdiction.

The Ministry of Public Infrastructure is specifically tasked with overseeing the maintenance of those drainage systems while the Ministry of Local Government has more specific responsibilities towards preparedness of drains and canals for meeting emergency situations:

(i) Ensure preparedness actions prior to the cyclonic season are taken. These should include carrying out of surveys to identify vulnerable areas/communities and inadequate drainage system and take remedial actions. Ensure cleaning and maintenance of drains, and canals. Enforce measures against illegal dumping in rivers, canals and drains.

 (ii) Jointly with other concerned ministries identify appropriate Emergency Shelters within areas of jurisdiction of local authorities (Municipal and District councils) based on the topography of the region and vulnerability of the community concerned.

Ministries of Social Security & Family Welfare and their support Agencies are specifically tasked to:

(i) Ensure that necessary administrative arrangements are put in place for the provision of amenities as per entitlement such as water and biscuits, hurricane lamps, etc., when emergency shelters are opened with special attention to disabled persons and children.

 (ii) Ensure that administrative arrangements are made with the MRCS for the provision of a minimum number of camp beds at each emergency shelter.

Elsewhere, one reads for the same Social Security Ministry:

(iii) Food vouchers are provided for up to all clear (no cyclone warning).

 (iv) Arrange for medical check for special needs, elderly and others by the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life.

Obviously, the NDS 2015 document details systems, procedures and processes systematically so that even the most wayward or inexperienced hand at the helm of the Ministry of Environment, Sustainable Development Disaster and Beach Management cannot get lost. It may never have been rolled out to all agencies and tested in live conditions so as to fine-tune systems and processes that in some ways look overbearing.

Nevertheless, the successive floods of 2016, 2017 and 2018 remind us all too bitterly that the National Disaster Scheme may have been left to idle away in some office drawer. The authorities have all the ingredients for responsible disaster preparedness and for making drains management principles alive in sustainable territorial development.

 

* Published in print edition on 2 February 2018

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