Friday, December 6, 2013

Disaster Risk Reduction in a Shifting Climate

SVRK Prabhakar

1. What can you tell from recent typhoon in Philippine and Cyclone in India? Are there any commonalities and differences and why?

One of the ways of judging the efficacy of disaster risk reduction (DRR) systems of any country is to look at how the government and other stakeholders have responded to a disaster and the subsequent impacts in terms of lives lost and property destroyed. However, comparison of disasters in two countries would have to be made with more caution and require deeper analysis than what the numbers suggest on the surface since the efficacy of DRR measures could be vastly different within a country because the DRR is the primary responsibility of local governments which differ in their capacities, depending on the strength of the event in question and can vary at what time of the year and time of the day of landfall of the event etc. Table 1 provides a comparison of tropical cyclones Phailin that hit Odisha, India on 12 October 2013 and Haiyan that hit Eastern Visayas of Philippines on 8th November. The following observations explain the reasons behind severe damages from Haiyan: a) The typhoon Haiyan was unarguably the stronger typhoon and was at its peak strength when it made landfall, b) The short early warning period (the first early warning available for a stronger Haiyan was 5th November that forecasted a wind speed of 167 kmph while the IMD was able to track the cyclone Phailin 4-5 days before with a forecasted wind speed of 180 kmph), c) early landfall than expected, d) slower and insufficient evacuation measures before landfall of typhoon; also partly due to unwilling people to relocate, e) slow rescue and relief operations due to complete disruption of local government machinery depriving any support to the national government and non-governmental agencies, f) relatively poorer DRR measures due to insufficient financial investments arguably due to skewed political decision making.

Table: Comparison of cyclone Phailin and typhoon Haiyan
Cyclone Phailin
Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda)
Sustained maximum wind speed at landfall (kmph)
Saffir-Simpson Tropical Cyclone Scale[3]
Category 3-4
Category 4
Areas affected
Most of coastal Odisha and two Coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh
Central Philippines with maximum damage in Tacloban area
Last event of similar intensity
14 years
22 years
Time of landfall
22:30 hrs
4:40 hrs
Total deaths[4]
Total affected
12 million
15 million
Number evacuated
1.5 million
1 million
Estimated total damage (billion USD)
Associated secondary disaster
Heavy rainfall and floods
Heavy rainfall and flood
Advance prediction of landfall and intensity
4-5 days
2-3   days
*Information, other than cited, was compiled from various web sources that can be easily traced using Google.

2. Can these recent extreme events be attributed to climate change? How can we make sense out of these?

The topic of attribution has its origin in perceptibly growing number of extreme events and related impacts. Attribution of any particular climatic event to climate change is the most difficult aspect of climate services and our understanding of climate system as a whole has not reached a point where the models employed can help us attribute certain climatic event to climate change with greater accuracy (Read Nature Editorial 19 December 2012). Irrespective of the purpose of attribution (e.g. climate negotiations), the emphasis on attribution may not yield as much value and usefulness compared to putting efforts on advanced early warning systems, strengthening dissemination and efficient application of early warning information for definitive actions on the ground. There is a sufficient agreement among climate researchers for high probability of extreme events in the future and there is a clear evidence for increasing number of extreme events historically. Despite this, there is certain difficulty in attributing the impacts on the ground to climate change for the reason that more and more people have been living in vulnerable areas putting them in the harm’s way than before. The rapid economic growth is only making this trend worse as more and more infrastructure is being constructed in vulnerable areas. Hence, understanding the dynamics of population growth and distribution and its interaction with the natural hazards assumes greater significance in understanding the observed impact trends and for achieving effective risk reduction.

Figure: While authorities were able to save thousands of lives, Phailin has left behind widespread devastation (Photo Courtesy: A. Shreekanth).

3) How government can prepare, nationally, internationally and locally, especially in the Asia Pacific Area?

Thanks to Hyogo Framework of Action (HFA) and subsequent efforts at national and international levels, more countries have some kind of disaster preparedness and response plans and strategies and hence the picture of DRR is far better today than a decade ago. Today, several countries in the region have national authorities, ministries and departments for focused action on DRR. As a result, national and local systems have become better in handling the disasters and cyclone Phailin provides an important evidence for it. The accurate early warning has triggered authorities to evacuate large number of people and hence were able to avert a major disaster. Even in the case of Philippines, despite the widespread criticism, the authorities did manage to evacuate nearly a million within the short period of time available to them. However, there is a lot to be achieved along the continuum of disaster management cycle in a rage of areas which includes strengthening early warning and educating the communities on the importance of heeding to early warning, establishing sufficient number of evacuation shelters, enforcing proper regulations (land use and urban plans) restricting spread of infrastructure in vulnerable areas and strengthening coordination and communication channels across ministries and stakeholders engaged in DRR. While post-disaster rescue and relief has been perfected over the years due to traditionally response oriented national systems, more can be done in better relief management and post-relief and reconstruction planning. DRR cannot be achieved without proper information to rely upon and disaster databases that assist in identifying vulnerable and channeling resources are to be strengthened. The loss and damage databases being established by UNDP are able to bridge this gap to a greater extent. Risk information coupled with strengthened disaster mitigation measures will pave the way for designing and implementing appropriate insurance programs that will reduce the burden on national exchequer and put the people in the driving seat of managing their risks. While these traditional measures are most needed, there is also need to embark upon prospective planning by taking into consideration the increasingly perfecting climate projections into planning processes. Taking up adaptive management practices will go a long way in adjusting the institutional and regulatory systems as our understanding on climate change improve. There is lot of synergy between DRR and climate change adaptation and the tools and strategies perfected by these communities could be mutually beneficial. Today there are more opportunities for these two communities to work together due to growing number of networks and epistemic groups operating in these areas. The discussions for post-2015 Hyogo Framework Action and the future climate regime under UNFCCC begin to provide impetus for this nexus to happen on the ground.

[1] 3 minutes sustained, Cyclone Warning Division, Indian Meteorological Department, 2013
[2] 10 minutes sustained, Severe Weather Bulletin No 6, Philippine Met Agency, PAGASA
[3] There are several tropical cyclone classifications. Following IMD classification, the Cyclone Phailin is classified as Very Severe Cyclone Storm and Typhoon Haiyan as Super Cyclonic Storm.
[4] IMD for Phailin and UN OCHA for Haiyan