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Monday, January 10, 2005

Post-tsunami thoughts 4: Lessons from a disaster

The hardest part about any tragedy is that it need not have been so bad. Sure, the earthquake in the Indian Ocean was one of the worst ever, and the tsunami was devastatingly powerful – still, thousands of deaths could have been avoided with some basic precautionary measures, and the relief work could have been smoother and more effective.

I’m speaking in hindsight, of course, but before the next event – for no disaster is ever the last one. From my travels through the tsunami-affected regions of Tamil Nadu over the last couple of weeks, a few measures come to mind that need to be taken before the next calamity. Most of these are relevant to disasters other than tsunamis as well – earthquakes and cyclones, for example – and although they are all drawn from my recent experiences in India, I suspect that many of them will be relevant to the other affected countries as well.

Here goes:

One – Do a census: One of the things we found, as we travelled from village to village, was that no list of residents existed for most of them. In the chaos and confusion, it was hard to figure out how many people were dead and how many were missing. Also, many villages had barriers of caste, as in Thevanampattinam, with one caste often refusing to acknowledge the other, and casualty and compensation lists were affected by this.

Two – Enumerate belongings: More than just a headcount, a census should also enumerate the details of each house, with a valuation as thorough as an insurance policy. This would help during the process of compensation in two ways: one, compensation fraud, which, sadly, is commonplace, would be more difficult; and two, government officials would have less scope to be corrupt while giving compensation, as everything would be in black and white. This process is not as cumbersome as it sounds, with most villages not having more than a couple of hundred households, which is easily manageable.

Three – Build a local emergency warning system: There is much talk of an emergency warning system that will let the government know that a tsunami is on the way. But the hard part is disseminating that warning to all the places in danger, most of which would be villages. Television and radio warnings are all very well, but even the handful of people who do possess them may not have them on through the night or early in the morning, when this tsunami struck.

One solution that comes to my mind is of having automated telephone calls, in a time of disaster, with a prerecorded message, to all affected areas, with a loudspeaker system set up in each village to spread that warning further. The loudspeaker system would allow multiple access and, if possible, would include an option for a central broadcast from the district office.

Four – Conduct disaster drills: As the example of Rajendra Ratnoo’s disaster management training in Sasniyarpettai shows, disaster management drills can save lives. People will know what to do in a crisis, and there will be less panic. If Ratnoo, a sub-collector, can implement them in one village, surely all sub-collectors can be instructed to implement them in all the villages on their beat. To maximise the utility of a local emergency warning system, it is important that local people know what to do in a crisis.

Five – Constitute a central relief authority for each district: We found that all through the Tamil Nadu coast, NGOs duplicated work madly, and there was tremendous wastage of aid resources. Such a situation can be avoided if a central authority – logically, the district administration – is made responsible for coordinating all the aid that floods into their area. But what if that authority turns out to be incompetent?

At Cuddalore the authorities did a wonderful job, but at Nagapattinam, they took more than a week to get their act together. So the setting up of a central relief authority for each district needs to be done with two caveats: one, there is a central government complaint line where anybody can file a complaint about the district authorities, with all complaint logs made available to the press; and two, aid agencies should retain the option to deliver aid on their own if they feel that the central authority is not acting fast enough. The central relief authority, thus, should not be a mandatory port of call for every aid agency, though if they are competent, I suspect that aid agencies will go to them first, and make the process more efficient.

Six – Organise a rating system for NGOs: All through my trip, my inbox was flooded with emails from people asking me, in essence, “I want to donate, but I don’t know whom to donate to. Where should my money go?” This is an important question, because, while some NGOs like Aid India did a wonderful, focussed job, there were many others which were wasting time and money, more interested in brand building and filling up their resume for the next funding season than in actually doing relief work. There is, I have found, as much corruption, politics and inefficiency among NGOs as there is among private-sector companies – but while inefficient companies in the private sector are punished by the market, there is no such mechanism to hold NGOs accountable.

Just as there is an ICRA for the private sector, I recommend that someone – not the government – set up a similar efficiency-rating agency for NGOs. This would serve two purposes: one, donors would have some guidance, in a crisis like this, of who would make the best use of their money; and two, foreign aid givers, who donate billions of dollars every year for various causes, would know which agencies actually do useful work, and which are parasites.

What if the agency is biased or inefficient itself, you ask? Well, in that case it would soon suffer a loss of credibility on its own. The respect such an agency would get would be proportional to the efficiency of the work it did. In any case, their findings would not be binding on anybody, but would be an excellent guideline for those who needed one.

Seven – Assess relief needs, and prepare accordingly: Many of the relief supplies that we saw reaching Tamil Nadu were redundant – old clothes being a case in point. To make sure that relief for the next disaster is focussed, it is important to carry out an evaluation of what kind of supplies came in handy here. Take medicines, as an example: if we have a rough break-up of which medicines were required the most here, which we fell short of providing, and which came in too many numbers, we can plan better for next time. The centre should, in fact, have an emergency store of supplies ready at all times, so that even before donors and NGOs can get into the act, the medicines could be on their way to wherever they are required.

This is also true of something as essential as heavy earth-moving equipment. The post-tsunami mess at Nagapattinam could have been avoided if that kind of equipment was available – it wasn’t for over a week, despite Mani Shankar Aiyar’s plea for it on television a day after the tsunami. Earth-moving equipment is invaluable for quick body disposal and for helping clear the rubble after earthquakes, and I am sure there are many such needs that would have been felt during this crisis, and which can be met in future with planning.

Eight – Stick to regulations: If the laws emanating from the Coastal Regulation Zone notifications (Word file) had been adhered to, a vast number of the deaths resulting from the tsunami would have been avoided. (The rules regulate, and in many places prohibit, any construction within 500 metres of the coastline, where most of the lives were lost.) Fishermen used to ignore these laws – if they knew about them at all – and the government did not enforce them. But the fishermen do care now, and will, in most cases, be willing to keep a certain distance from the sea. It is the government I worry about here – despite the tsunami, land by the sea is still valuable real estate, and the land mafias will no doubt try their best to grab it. It is up to citizens' groups and the media to make sure that this does not happen.

Nine – Fight poverty: Most of the victims of the tsunami were poor, living in fragile thatched huts by the sea. The most efficient way to minimise the impact of a future disaster is to fight poverty. For my thoughts on this, click here.
amit varma, 1:45 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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