Covid, Cyclones, Migrants' Crisis: India Must Update Risk Management Strategy to Deal with Multiple Threats

Saurabh Bhardwaj and Dhriti Pathak
·4-min read

The year 2020 has seen a significant spike in climate risks and disasters, across countries, and especially in the Indian subcontinent. As climate change, as a phenomenon, is starting to manifest in the form of more severe and frequent extreme events, new trans-boundary risks are emerging, leading to the breakdown of risk and disaster management systems globally. A major challenge for national and sub-national actors in 2020-21 has been battling climate extremes amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

In India alone, several risks had to be handled alongside the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, such as the locust swarm attacks in northern India, frequent cyclones along the eastern coast—Amphan, Nisarga and Nivar—and the changed patterns of seasonal rainfall, both in terms of frequency and intensity. The summer of 2020 in India also witnessed heat waves in several parts of the country, with temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius in some parts of Rajasthan. During this time, like most countries, India had also enforced a countrywide lockdown in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus. This affected the lower strata the most. Countless daily wage labourers lost their only source of livelihood. Unable to manage the expenses of living in the cities, and with no mode of transport available, migrant workers across the country took to walking long distances to reach their homes in remote villages. Many lives were lost in what many believe was an unforeseen consequence of the manner in which these compounding risks were dealt with.

The disaster management mechanisms that are currently in place, while having started to focus on risk preparedness and reduction, still have a long way to go in terms of managing compounding risks. The risk management apparatuses that were in place were not equipped to tackle multiple overlapping risks.

Risks are generally calculated based on past occurrences and do not rely heavily on future events. As we witness a rise in multiple hazards across the globe and in India, there is a need to build a multi-hazard disaster management strategy. The Covid-19 crisis has shown that strategies for hazards in isolation are sometimes rendered ineffective, especially when dealing with multiple hazards at the same time. A case in point being the evacuation strategies coupled with the social distancing norms to manage the outbreak of the Coronavirus.

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In India and other developing countries, preparedness is not viewed as a policy across all the sectors, with most being biased towards reactive action. Therefore, the disaster management authorities in these countries end up exhausting bulk of resources on response mechanisms.

The threat of climate change also looms large. There is an increase in extreme events, both primary events such as very heavy rainfall-causing floods, and secondary events such as changes in temperatures leading to the emergence of new pathogens, microbes, or even disease-causing viruses or bacteria. The Covid-19 pandemic has proved that such risks are existential in nature. These risks and threats together pose a major challenge to the existing risk and disaster management apparatus.

We are grappling with many competing risks and challenges in the form of climate change, biological risks, environmental destruction and rapid urbanization. It has been observed that countries with better risk governance were better prepared to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. This, therefore, calls for a need to understand the systemic nature of risks and their cascading effects. The planning process for risk management must include the most-vulnerable section. This would empower them and the local authorities (municipalities) to understand their risks better, manage them better and construct scalable resilient solutions and plans that are grounded and based on a shared vision.

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Public, private and people’s partnership is the key to building implementable plans. The private sector can play a major role in bringing in the required resources and expertise to manage systemic risks and assist in improving local governance. The implementation of these plans at the ground level will be contingent on the partnership between the remaining two sectors, the public sector and the people.

The year 2020 saw the world experiencing common crises and people coming together to bring about changes. An integrated and holistic climate risk management strategy also requires such an effort. Since climate change doesn’t have a vaccine, managing compounding risks requires novel ways of risk management and a need to incentivise efforts in that direction. This is a long-term process, but the time to act is now.

(Saurabh Bhardwaj is Fellow and Area Convener, Centre for Climate Modelling, Earth Science and Climate Change. Dhriti Pathak is Project Associate, Centre for Global Environment Research, Earth Science and Climate Change Division, TERI. Views are personal.)