by Piyoosh Rautela Feb 14, 2023
Be it in the aftermath of sudden ground shaking as in the Bhuj Earthquake of 2001, or the occurrence of some unheard-of phenomenon like the sudden swelling of waves as with the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, or unexpectedly heavy rainfall and ensuing floods as in Kedarnath in the 2013 or prolonged creep of ground silently unfolding into a disaster as in Joshimath in 2023 – every single human tragedy, small or big, triggers a debate over increasing magnitude and frequency of natural disasters.
Despite lacking hard facts and data to supplement the claim, many – especially with a scientific bend of mind – are quick to attribute all this to climate change. They at the same time manage to rearrange and even manipulate available data and statistics to strengthen their viewpoint.
Those unable to comprehend the reasons behind the devastation attribute the same to a divine curse and this is commonplace amongst the elderly and uneducated. Moreover, often dubbing disasters as “Daiveey Apda”, the administration reinforces this belief of the masses.
Nature: The villain
In most cases of human tragedy nature is often portrayed as being the villain.
Is nature really to be blamed every now and then, and for each and every devastating incidence, or else this blame game is the product of our skewed understanding of natural processes and their interrelationship with disasters?
Many disasters are no doubt caused by routinely occurring natural processes – atmospheric circulation, continuing movement of geographical entities made up of a near-surface layer of earth called Plates by geologists, simple precipitation and temperature variation, as also routine aggradation and denudation.
These processes are no new to our planet but then, but their intensity or pace has not always remained the same. Fluctuations in these have influenced the environment and the earth has consequently witnessed extremes – ice sheets extending to the equatorial region and forcing sea level to go down by as much as 130 meters during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), about 20000 years ago, as also abnormally high temperatures – 10-18o more than 19th Century during Eocene times – some 56 – 34 million years before present.
Nature or its underlying processes have never operated according to a standard menu, and nature with a wardrobe full of variety is sure to keep surprising us.
But then, despite introducing variability and even extremes, nature does not design disasters.
Disasters: Whose responsibility?
Variability in natural processes is a rule rather than an exception.
If that is right, are we justified in portraying nature as being the villain for every disaster that takes place on this planet?
Do we humans have no role in these?
Kedarnath– June 2013: South-west monsoonal front collided with the Westerlies in the higher reaches of Kumaun – Garhwal Himalaya and this interaction caused abnormally high rainfall on 16 – 17 June 2013 which resulted in a sudden rise in discharge and water level of most rivers that include Yamuna, Alaknanda, Mandakini, Bhagirathi, Dhauliganga, Pinder and Kali.
Despite all these rivers crossing the danger level major loss of human lives occurred in the Mandakini valley alone where a large number of people were present in the proximity of the active channel of Mandakini river at Kedarnath, Rambara, and Gaurikund.
What then caused this disaster?
Presence of people in large numbers or the precipitation?
Who according to you was responsible for this large human congregation in Mandakini valley?
Whatever the answer, you are sure to spare nature.
People, administration, and authorities – everyone knew for quite some time that the ground below was creeping, and the same was evident from cracks on the roads and houses, as also fissures in agricultural fields.
The warning signs were however ignored, by both masses and authorities, and Joshimath was allowed to grow recklessly with no regard to bearing or carrying capacity, solid waste management, and drainage measures.
And there we stand – helpless spectators to what nature is doing and fully unaware as to how the situation is to unfold in days to come.
Something happens that harms people.
The affected people are unable to deal with the situation.
They require outside help for coping.
Moreover, disaster as defined and understood unanimously results from the interplay of hazard and vulnerability.
This is attributed both to nature and humans.
So we have natural hazards such as earthquakes, cyclones, floods, landslides, and the like. As put forth earlier in the context of nature – hazard refers to routinely occurring natural processes – atmospheric circulation, Plate tectonics, precipitation, temperature fluctuations, aggradation, denudation, and the like.
We do at the same time have anthropogenic hazards that include accidents of various kinds, fire, building collapse, leakage of toxic chemicals, and the like.
It is however the vulnerability that invariably decides the impact.
Vulnerability refers to the proneness of individuals or communities to be affected by hazards. Put alternatively, vulnerability refers to societal factors that make it difficult for people or communities to evade the consequences of natural processes.
Vulnerability, in most cases, emanates from our actions, values, beliefs, customs, behaviour, attitude, choices and decisions. And most times, decisions relating to vulnerability reduction are taken by a chosen few commanding power and authority, but these have wider and lasting implications for the masses.
But then nature does not decide as to who resides where.
These choices are made by humans, and often driven by socio-economic considerations.
Socio-economic vulnerability: Going deeper one realizes that various socio-economic factors create vulnerability or add to it. People deprived of education, healthcare, resources, economic opportunities and civic amenities together with those attached to gender roles are often more vulnerable.
Vulnerability and not nature causes disaster
In fact it is human choices, policies, practices, beliefs and decisions that influence and create vulnerability. And it is the vulnerability that decides if the community or region is to face a disaster.
Review of a few previous earthquakes would illustrate this difference.
Though causing economic losses to the tune of US$ 250-300 million this earthquake killed just 02 persons and injured 40.
Bam Earthquake killed 26271 and injured 22628 persons while 45000 were displaced.
Around 90% infrastructure around Bam was damaged with 70% houses completely destroyed.
Same is the case with Turkiye – Syria Earthquake.
Tokachi Earthquake: Compare Turkiye – Syria Earthquake to Tokachi Earthquake of 26 September 2003. Six times more energy was released in this 8.3 magnitude earthquake that had hypocenter at a depth of 27 km.
Despite causing losses worth US$ 1.9 billion Tokachi Earthquake killed only one person while 02 went missing and 849 were injured.
Disaster: A continuing process
Really speaking these differences were no creation of nature.
In fact, people in California and Japan had learned to live with earthquakes and the governments in those countries had devised and implemented a regime that promoted and ensured high-quality construction abiding to earthquake-safe construction practices. At the same time human decisions, attitudes, and choices ensured that the masses are aware and know how to cope up in an earthquake situation.
All this ensured the safety of the people.
But nothing was done or achieved overnight.
Address vulnerability to manage disasters
Hope you are convinced by now that disasters are the result of our actions, values, beliefs, customs, behaviour, attitude, choices and decisions and these attributes alone make a society resilient or vulnerable.
Moreover, we experience most disasters as events but in reality disasters are caused by build up of vulnerability over a long time that might run into decades. Societal processes acting for long time accentuate vulnerability that ultimately culminates in a disaster. This is actually what happened in Joshimath or for that matter in Turkiye, Syria and Iran.
So we can safely deduce that rather than an event disaster is a slow process.
Alternatively we can assert that accruing vulnerability surpassing the threshold manifests itself in a disaster and the problem of disaster risk reduction efforts is rooted in missed focus on vulnerability reduction, and considering hazard forecasting and warning dissemination as being the ultimate solution for reducing the disaster toll.
In the process disaster managers, often mesmerized by technology, projected outcomes, and jargon of consultants, fail to realize that even a precise and accurate warning communicated well in advance is to be of no use if social attributes of the recipient community inhibit appropriate action – the message could not be deciphered meaningfully, knowhow on what to do could be missing, resources, faith, and belief could prohibit evacuation and so on.
So, if aiming at disaster resilience of the society rather than just communicating warnings, the sole focus of all disaster risk reduction initiatives should necessarily be on identifying vulnerabilities and proactively eliminating these with the active involvement of all stakeholders and ensuring that the new ones do not crop up.