Disaster natural – Damage man-made

This is the headline of the NDTV news channel in reporting the devastating monsoon floods that have swept across the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in India. There are hundreds who have been killed, including army personnel called out to rescue, thousands of people – both pilgrims and tourists – are stranded, and many more missing and feared dead. In fact there is a genuine possibility that the numbers of the dead are likely to increase. Relatives and families have been gathering at nodal points to seek the sparse information that is coming through, what with a breakdown of all forms of communication.

As to the damage done, whole stretches of roads winding around the hills and mountains have been washed away along with their bridges, and buildings perched on hillsides have crumbled down what with the slopes sliding under them. The surfaces of whatever remains of the roads are full of holes and deep, wide cracks. Called in, the army has been airdropping food and water and other essentials, and there are pathetic scenes of aged people being helped to negotiate steep, slippery slopes on the hillsides as they attempted to make the painful climb towards safety.

The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was shown along with the Congress Party President Mrs Sonia Gandhi flying over the affected areas to have a first-hand view of the situation. The gushing torrents of the swollen rivers and vertiginous ravines are enough to make one feel dizzy. The central government has released substantial funding as emergency assistance along with deploying the army.

We have seen similar portentous scenarios in the floods in Europe a couple of weeks ago, with areas and regions in Germany deep under water as had never been seen before, let alone expected. It was very sad indeed to hear people describing what they had gone through, and even worse was the sight of people crying for having lost everything, but absolutely everything, what with their houses lost, and not having a clue about how they would have to start all over again. And these were not youngsters, but middle-aged and older adults who probably had put all their savings in a lifetime investment, their houses containing their precious belongings.

Flashback further to the tornadoes in Oklahoma in the United States, with a whole town of about 15 000 people completely razed to the ground, hospitals and schools included. As if this were not enough, not later than a couple of weeks afterwards, another tornado hit again with extensive damage and further loss of lives, this time in another area. Cyclone Katrina that overwhelmed New Orleans in southern US is still fresh in many people’s minds, not to speak of the tsunami in Japan whose catastrophic impact is still felt as the inhabitants there are trying to rebuild their lives and the fate of the nuclear reactor is still unclear.

A letter in the latest issue of TIME magazine about the tragedy in Oklahoma reads as follows: ‘Early warning, advanced weather-watching technologies or more safe rooms and shelters might have helped the people… but would have done little for their properties. For us Europeans, who use concrete and bricks in construction, we find images of whole neighbourhoods entirely destroyed by the passing of a tornado completely unreal and even surreal. With such arbitrary loss of human life and the cost of the damages in the billions, maybe it’s time for a change in the choice of building materials.’

Indeed we also find it strange how come the Americans have not done so, and go on rebuild their houses using the same lightweight wood and plastic, when they know that that the disasters are more than likely to strike again.

We in tiny Mauritius switched to concrete very soon after the most devastating Alix and Carol cyclones in 1960, a trend that has continued along with beefing up our preparedness for cyclones, with the result that damage due to them now is almost negligible.

It is unfortunate that the weaknesses, constraints and deficiencies known to governments are not acted upon with the alacrity that is deserved. Years after this matter was reported, it is only now that the need for an updated radar for our Met Services has been taken in earnest. The best that the government could come up with immediately was to fire the director of the Met Services, just to be politically correct. Pathetic, to repeat what we have said before.

Listening to the interventions by responsible officers and analysts in India rings bells that have been heard before. It seems that the central government had advised against the rampant constructions on hillsides in the hill stations, but the states went ahead nevertheless in the name of tourism and economic development. Advance warning of 48 hours was given about the torrential rains by the Met Services, so that travellers and residents could be advised, but the authorities did not act. Typical, one is tempted to say…

An expert on climate change and the environment repeated what had been said before, is regularly repeated, and is known to all: that whereas earlier such catastrophic floods and so on used to take place about once every 50 years, their frequency has increased and they will now come at shorter intervals. There have been naysayers regarding the impact of climate change, but their negation notwithstanding, in light of what all of us in all countries and across all continents are witnessing, we had better take preparedness issues seriously while there is perhaps still time. In a calm, serious, and focused manner, with no hysterics and no political correctness. Otherwise, the price to pay will be unbearable, and will affect all of us both collectively and even individually.

No one will be safer than his neighbour: we’d better remember that and act – now.

* Published in print edition on 21 June 2013

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