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Crouching and creeping disasters

By Darryl D'Monte

At a recent workshop in Delhi, participants discussed how there are two kinds of disasters: one, sudden and unpredictable like the 2005 floods in Mumbai and the earthquake in Pakistan; the other, the slow-onset phenomenon of which the most alarming and widespread is climate change. In both, perhaps the single biggest lack is information

Last month, the BBC World Service Trust held a workshop in Delhi for NGOs, experts and the media on disaster preparedness. Its emphasis was on what could be done in advance, if not to prevent natural or manmade disasters, at least to mitigate their impact.

I was asked to speak at the session for the media, which was also addressed by Amit Sengupta, formerly of Tehelka and now at Hard News magazine.

It isn’t easy to draw the line between natural and human-induced disasters. For instance, Hurricane Katrina was a natural phenomenon. However, as it crossed the bay in Louisiana it encountered warm winds, which were generated by the ocean heating up much more than normal due to the phalanx of oil refineries and other units that emptied their hot wastes into the bay. This intensified the force of the hurricane.

The Bhopal gas tragedy could also be seen as a “development-induced disaster”. And by any account, the deluge that swamped Mumbai on July 26, 2005, was an example of nature’s wrath; whether it was an unprecedented localised downpour remains something of a meteorological controversy. However, the impact of the 944 mm of rain that fell that day (most of it within 10 hours) was compounded by the folly of man, since the waterbodies that absorb such excessive rain have largely been filled up for construction. And the Mithi river, treated more like a drain in which to empty human and industrial waste, has been physically abused.

But there is another distinction between disasters. One is sudden, unpredictable (Katrina and Mumbai’s flood fall into this category, as well as the earthquakes in China in 2008 and Pakistan in 2005), the other is the slow-onset phenomenon, of which the most alarming and widespread is climate change.

India is living in a fool’s paradise, along with its South Asian neighbours. In the shadow of the Himalayas live some 600 million people in the Indo-Gangetic belt, all of whom depend on the snow melt from glaciers that feed the rivers. With global average temperatures rising, these glaciers are receding at a most alarming rate, posing an incalculable risk to these people.

One of the single biggest lacks in times of either kind of disaster is information. Take the Bhopal gas tragedy, which occurred 15 years ago. No one, least of all the hapless jhuggi-dwellers who inhabited the area around Union Carbide India Ltd’s pesticide plant, were aware of the hazards, much less what the gas was. On that fateful night of December 3, 1984, when toxic gas wafted into their makeshift dwellings, the old and infirm told their younger relatives to flee, that they were doomed and should be left behind. In one of those terrible ironies, the able-bodied ran headlong into the gas, panting heavily and inhaling more and more of the poisonous gas; the elders who bolted their doors escaped a lingering end.

That was by no means the only example of lack of information during the tragedy. As the days unfolded, there was a total clampdown on information: what was the gas, to begin with? There were reports that it was phosgene, or nerve gas, used in World War I. At Union Carbide’s head office in Danbury, Connecticut, the company -- realising that millions of dollars were at stake in terms of compensation for the world’s worst industrial accident -- didn’t reveal that it was methyl isocyanate (MIC), the latter formula denoting an affinity with cyanide, one of the world’s deadliest poisons.

The second lack was information about the antidote. Indeed, because the medical establishment was in total confusion about the nature of the gas, and the company wasn’t cooperating, it was the media that was at the forefront of the investigations. Journalists like Praful Bidwai, the late Ivan Fera, and Arun Subramaniam delved deep into toxicology, the chemical industry, compensation law, and so on. At one stage, a German toxicologist came to India and asserted that he had an antidote for MIC. When the medical establishment refused to administer the injections, despite some victims reporting an improvement in their condition, journalists could hardly be blamed for imagining that something fishy was afoot, that people who were injected would have tell-tale traces of cyanate in their urine, which the powers-that-be wanted to hide. Eventually, it was discovered that the drug he was administering was a harmless fixing agent for developing film, and, far from improving the health of victims, it was merely having a placebo effect! It was the general environment of disinformation and misinformation that triggered off such gaffes.

The confusion a few weeks after the accident, over detoxification of the site, masterminded by Dr S Varadarajan, who headed the central government’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, as Bhopal residents fled the city for fear that more toxic gas could escape, cost this otherwise well-meaning technocrat his job. Due to goof-ups on the part of the government and medical authorities in Bhopal, which were by and large mistakes of omission, when the next such medical disaster struck they didn’t want to be caught napping.

Exactly a decade later, the so-called plague hit Surat and all hell broke loose! This time, far from clamming up, there was a veritable deluge, a mistake of commission. The medical establishment took no chances and let loose a flurry of information, rushing to the conclusion that it was plague. There was an exodus from the diamond-cutting hub in Gujarat; trains shut their windows as they passed through the station.

I recall being in transit at Heathrow airport in London during those fateful days. The Air-India Jumbo was ferried to a remote corner where all passengers were thoroughly sprayed with some chemical, making us all feel like pariahs and untouchables. India lost a few hundred crores of exports, and tourist cancelled their bookings: the epidemic struck in September which is when many foreigners plan their winter holidays. Eventually, months later, after all the damage had been done, the WHO concluded that it wasn’t plague at all. Plague has two characteristic signs -- “rat-fall” and the fact that it is so contagious that once someone is infected in a family there is no way the rest of the family will be immune to the disease. Neither was evident.

On the contrary, it was a highly dangerous “plague-like” viral infection -- partly caused, perhaps, by the higgledy-piggledy, unauthorised construction in this boom town, leading to poor or non-existent sanitation and the rapid spread of contagion. The WHO called it “media-induced plague” -- a not very complimentary reference to the journalists who mindlessly created panic around the epidemic, without checking the facts. The medical establishment, for its part, having been caught with its pants down in Bhopal, didn’t want a repetition of that fiasco and shot off its mouth far too early.

In an excellent document in the wake of the Asian tsunami, titled Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book, edited by Nalaka Gunawardene and Frederick Noronha, with a foreword by the late Sir Arthur C Clarke, and published by UNDP in Bangkok and Television for Education-Asia Pacific (TVEAP) in Sri Lanka in 2007, experts cite how, in any disaster, information is a commodity that is as vital as material aid. When Hurricane Katrina occurred, a Mumbai-based blogger, Dina Mehta, connected with others in the US and elsewhere and helped channel aid to those who needed it. Inexplicably, this didn’t happen in Mumbai, where a simple warning to people to remain in their offices or schools, instead of rushing home, would have saved lives and spared inconvenience to thousands stranded by the July 2005 deluge.

In the past, as in the case of earthquakes in the Himalayas, the small but dedicated band of ham radio operators in the country (now presumably dwindling with more modern communication technologies) has played such a role, particularly when electricity connections snap in the aftermath of a disaster.

The Indian meteorological department (IMD) has a lot of explaining to do so far as its poor record in disseminating information is concerned. It has been reasonably accurate in predicting annual rainfall, which is a vital statistic. In the early-1990s, for example, Dr Vasant Gowariker, scientific adviser to the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his team of IMD meteorologists made a 16-parameter computer simulation model to predict the monsoons; it remains reasonably accurate. However, particularly with the onset of climate change, meteorologists are realising that while annual precipitation over the country remains more or less the same, it is the variability -- long periods of no rain, followed by heavy rain over a few days -- that is causing serious concern.

The IMD’s performance in sudden events is far from satisfactory. On July 26, 2005, for instance, the Mumbai office predicted “heavy to very heavy rainfall” -- a far cry from the 944 mm that fell that day! Granting that such unprecedented events are difficult to predict, its prediction the very next day, for July 27, was exactly the same! No wonder hardly anyone takes such daily pro-forma predictions seriously.

Although officials, experts and the media do respond to sudden disasters, Professor Santosh Kumar of the National Institute for Disaster Management commented at the Delhi workshop how the human interest story of an individual, like the tiny child Prince who fell into an unguarded well shaft, managed to rivet the attention of TV news channels for hours (if not days) on end, while a distant tsunami didn’t attract the same coverage. And yet, as a survey of disaster-related deaths in Nepal between 1971 and 2003 shows, as many as 60% were caused by epidemics of various kinds, compared with 16% from landslides, 11% from floods, 4% from earthquakes, 3% from thunderstorms, and 6% from other causes. Comparative data from India, Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2005 show that three times more people were killed by epidemics than by landslides. However, these creeping disasters are seldom reported. Amit Sengupta cited his Tehelka series on poor sanitation and the related abhorrent practice of manual scavenging as examples of slow-onset (and caste-ridden) occurrences which take a huge toll of life and health.

It was Anil Agarwal of the Centre for Science and Environment who first explained to mass audiences in this country that floods and drought are two sides of the same coin. We take it for granted that they are separate phenomena, but with the glacial melt in the Himalayas, in particular in the Indo-Gangetic belt, there will be increased flow in rivers during the summer, in the initial years, followed by harsh and crippling droughts as the snow melt decreases. In any case, as a consequence of the rise in global temperature, long droughts and severe heat episodes are already being felt on the sub-continent.

A few years ago, following severe heat waves in Andhra Pradesh, the state government appointed a committee under Dr R K Pachauri, which found that there had been an abnormal number of deaths as a result of exposure to unpredictable weather.

The TVEAP document was written in hindsight in the wake of the Asian tsunami in December 2004 which killed 230,000 people. There was a 65-minute lag when atmospheric scientists in Hawaii first reported the build-up of highly unusual ocean activity off the coast of Indonesia. While this was too late to alert Indonesia, it was certainly not too late to inform countries in South Asia, as the scientists did. However, there was no mechanism on the ground along the coasts of India and Sri Lanka to take the necessary precautions. Andhra Pradesh, which is repeatedly battered by cyclones but was saved from the wrath of the tsunami, has now put in place simple measures to cope with such catastrophic events: cyclone-proof structures include community halls built on stilts that, for the rest of the year, serve as schools.

It is well documented that areas supporting mangroves in Andhra Pradesh have been able to withstand the fury of cyclones; this was the case with the tsunami too. But all along our coasts, mangroves have been destroyed with impunity, and this needs to be checked. One case in India underlines this lesson. The M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, based in Chennai, runs eco-development centres along the Pondicherry coast where there are luxuriant mangroves. Someone heard about the tsunami in Singapore and telephoned the project authorities there, who were able to take precautions to save lives because they had already organised villagers for various development schemes. Thus, the combined presence of the mangroves and grassroots organisations saved the day.

The importance of information in disasters was amply demonstrated during the tsunami. Because it was widely covered by the media, aid flooded in. The Chinese government, for the first time, allowed the local and international media to cover the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, in which nearly 80,000 people died; this too generated a lot of international support. The figures encapsulate the situation vividly and also highlight the enormous difference between sudden and creeping events: after the tsunami, each beneficiary received an average of $1,241 as aid; during the creeping drought in Malawi and Niger, in West Africa, around the same time, each recipient only got $27.

InfoChange News & Features, March 2009