Risk Reduction and Preparedness: How far can we go?

By Dr R Neeerunjun Gopee

Only so far, but depending on where and who we are in the world, we can gear ourselves substantially to face calamities. As we have done in Mauritius as regards cyclones: those of us who remember the desolation of the landscape after the passage of cyclones Alix and Carol in 1960 will surely accept that never again after them have we had anything like that. But nowadays our response at the approach of a cyclone is so well established that, with practically all constructions being in brick and cement, and sector emergency measures – health for example – in place being effective, there is neither as much damage nor are there so many casualties. In fact, the few deaths we have had to deplore in recent times have been caused mostly by individual negligence rather that due to the cyclone per se.

A simple illustration I like to give about risk is the pedestrian crossing and traffic lights: one may take all the precautions and follow the rules strictly, but we do know about defaulters going through the red lights and pedestrians being knocked down at the crossing. This shows that we can only minimize risk, never eliminate it. Similarly in medicine, despite doing everything according to norms, we can still get complications which it is beyond our control to either anticipate or avert, such is the nature of biological material – which is what we are in physical terms.

The same reasoning applies where other disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, massive floods, tsunamis and so on are concerned. Of course the first one that comes to mind at this time is the earthquake-cum-tsunami in Japan, but others in recent memory that caused destruction on a vast scale are the tsunami in Indonesia, the earthquake in Gujarat in 2001, cyclone Katrina in New Orleans USA, the floods that spread to nearly one third of Pakistan, the earthquakes in Haiti and not too long ago in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Japan, for example, is well prepared to face earthquakes, because of its experience with them, and the expertise it developed as a result to cope with future ones, consisting in particular of designing buildings that were more earthquake-resistant and awareness among its population of the immediate steps to follow when an earthquake strikes, e.g. instead of running out into the street from an office, to go hide under a desk or table, and so on. But, judging from what was seen on television and reported in the media generally, Christchurch was not as well prepared and suffered much extensive damage with significant loss of lives.

This was the case too in Kutch, Gujarat, where over 20,000 people were killed and more than 1.5 million were injured. The damage to buildings and infrastructure was huge, to say the least, and one city, Bhuj, was almost razed to the ground. In Haiti, considered to be the poorest country in the western hemisphere, almost 200, 000 people lost their lives, and the capital city of Port-au-Prince practically annihilated.

In the US, the biggest earthquake in its history occurred on 18 April 1906 in San Francisco, killing over 3000 of its population of 410,000 and rendering homeless over 300,000, not to speak of the calamitous damage to buildings and infrastructure.

But when it comes to cyclones and tsunami, even the US and Japan, despite being such advanced nations, were caught unprepared. Cyclone Katrina practically overwhelmed the capacities of the US authorities, and thousands of lives were lost, tens of thousands of other people were left homeless, without water and electricity for days altogether, and their houses completely destroyed. They had to seek refuge in rapidly identified but not quite ready shelters, where the crowded living conditions and promiscuity created several problems according to reports that were available, which also commented that food was scarce and there were scrambles in accessing it, with looting in supermarkets and such other acts of vandalism and despair.

In Japan, it is the tsunami that followed the earthquake that was responsible for the extreme damage that was seen – by all the world, daily, on a 24-hour basis. The walls that had been constructed to contain a tsunami could not withstand the destructive power of the rolling black monster, so too a gate that had been erected in a coastal village – completely flattened – some miles away from the main city that was affected by the tsunami, Sendai.

Adding to the difficulties and complicating matters has been the damage caused to the nuclear reactors in Fukoshima, and the hazard of nuclear radiation, a real one, now the major concern not only of the Japanese authorities and population but also of the whole world, especially those countries where there are nuclear power plants.

The point is that, however prepared one can be, we cannot anticipate all contingencies, as the catastrophes in Japan and USA have shown. Retrospectively, some gaps will be found – such as, in the case of cyclone Katrina, some structural problems in the levees to which engineers had drawn attention many a time, but which had not been acted upon. The nuclear plants in Fukoshima had been built according to all the known and agreed specifications then – but who would predict that they would not be able to withstand a tsunami. Besides, at the time they were put up, the world had not witnessed a tsunami of the magnitude that has characterized the last two.

Experts in the matter have come to the conclusion that what matters most, besides the state of preparedness, is the capacity to cope afterwards. And that depends on not only technical competencies, but a host of other factors such as the political and administrative structure of the country, political and social stability that ensure robust governance structures, and also cultural factors.

Perhaps that explains why the Japanese have been able to cope so admirably with the earthquake/tsunami, though the nuclear radiation problem is now becoming rather more difficult to handle on their own. But a number of email messages and accounts have been going round praising them for their stoicism, discipline and orderliness in the manner they have behaved themselves so far. Japan rebuilt itself after two atomic bombs were dropped on it during the Second World War, it is pointed out, and they will no doubt do so again after the present catastrophe.

So did Kutch, especially the city of Bhuj which has literally risen up from the ashes, ‘thanks to the resilience of the Kutchis, the intervention of NGOs and the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority. There has been an influx of industries with big names: Adani, Suzlon, Jindal, Welspun, Tata – with the creation of nearly 450,000 new jobs, construction of quake-resistant houses and buildings and so on. New Orleans also has recovered to a large extent, and the prices of the new house prices there are not hit by the foreclosure recession that prevails elsewhere in the US.

Such is not the case, alas, in impoverished Haiti, the massive international aid that poured in after the earthquake and the engagement of several high profile stars, such as Bill Clinton and George Bush notwithstanding. Those who know better ascribe this to structural and other factors, for example, those mentioned above, which are not present in that island. One year on, Haiti is still struggling desperately to come back to something near normality, but this seems to be a long way off.

It would appear therefore that, though a more developed and richer country can cope better with catastrophes, it is not altogether safe from them, as the vivid example of Japan demonstrates. The bottomline is that we can never be altogether free from risk, but we must ever be in a state of maximum readiness so as to limit eventual damage. And this is quite possible. It’s neither the end of days nor the apocalypse, it’s just the way that nature is – and we tend to forget that we are part of that same nature, and therefore must enjoy or endure with it.

* Published in print edition on 1 April 2011

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