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Disaster management has improved after the Asian Tsunami, but economic development has brought in new risks, says P. G. Dhar Chakrabarti.
The Boxing Day Asian Tsunami of 2004 was one of the deadliest natural disasters recorded in history. It was triggered by an earthquake of the magnitude of 9.1 on the Richter scale, which is the second largest ever recorded on a seismograph. It had the longest duration of faulting of 10 minutes ever observed, which caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as one centimetre and release energy of 26.3 mega tonnes of TNT, which is equivalent to over 1,502 times that of the atom bomb that was dropped over Hiroshima during World War II.

The earthquake resulted in sudden vertical rise of the seabed by several metres which displaced massive volumes of water, resulting in sea wave up to 30 metres high that struck the coasts of the Indian Ocean in as many as 15 countries — four in South East Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand), four in South Asia (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives), one in West Asia (Yemen) and six in Africa (Kenya, Madagascar, Seychelles, Somalia, South Africa and Tanzania).

In all, 230,210 people were confirmed dead, 45,752 were missing and presumed to have died, 125,000 were injured and over 1.69 million were displaced. The largest number of deaths took place in Indonesia at 167,736, followed by 35,322 in Sri Lanka, 18,045 in India, 8,212 in Thailand and so on. The casualties included deaths of over 9,000 tourists from 31 countries. Never before were so many countries over such a wide area affected by a natural disaster.

Humanitarian assistance worth over US$7 billion was mobilised the world over for the relief and recovery of the affected people, besides US$6 billion was raised through the UN system. This was the largest humanitarian aid ever mobilised in any single disaster anywhere in the world.

New disaster management initiatives

The unprecedented disaster took place less than a month before the second World Conference on Disaster Reduction held in Kobe, Japan, in January 2005. This facilitated the unanimous adoption of the outcome document of the conference — Hyogo Framework of Action 2005-2015: Building the resilience of nations and communities to disastersby 168 participating countries of the world. The document pitched its expected outcome to ‘substantial reduction of disaster losses, in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets of communities and countries’, and outlined three strategic goals, five priorities of action, 20 key activities and 63 sub-activities for achieving this outcome.

The Hyogo Framework [1] guided substantial global, regional, national and local initiatives for reducing the risks of disasters. The most tangible gain of the conference was the development of new legal, institutional framework on disaster management in almost all the countries of the world. Countries across different regions of the world adopted new policy frameworks on disaster management which marked a paradigm shift from the earlier approach of post-disaster relief and rehabilitation to holistic management of disasters covering pre-disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness as well as post-disaster response, recovery and reconstruction.

Significant initiatives were taken for the development of early warning of hydro-meteorological and other types of disasters for which such warnings are possible. Tsunami early warning systems were developed in almost all the regions where there are risks of tsunamis. Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System came up for Asia and Africa, linking it with the national meteorological services. The national early warning systems were substantially upgraded making it possible for accurate warnings for cyclone and tsunamis. It can now be said that such disasters would no longer take the toll of lives that it used to in the past. The most recent examples are the cyclones Phailin and Hudhud in India and Hagupit in the Philippines, which killed people in fractions of what it did historically.

“While there is downward trend in mortality, damages and losses due to disasters have increased manifold. Economic globalisation has led to massive increase in hazard exposure”

P. G. Dhar Chakrabarti

Scientific and technological institutes around the world were involved in assessing the risks of various types of disasters, which enhanced the understanding of the hazards, vulnerabilities and risks of disasters. This raised the awareness about the various steps to be taken to save lives and assets due to disasters. Disaster management was included in the curriculum of school education and in various professional courses like engineering, health and emergency management. Many countries implemented community-based disaster preparedness programmes and improved the capacity of civil defence and other agencies to respond to disasters. Various international agencies and national governments stepped up their efforts for post-disaster recovery and reconstruction, based on the principles of ‘build back better’. Many communities devastated by disasters were rebuilt, raising hopes for millions of people for a better future. The most shining examples of such recovery efforts are the Kutch in Gujarat, Aceh and Nias in Indonesia, Sichuan in China, Port-au-Prince in Haiti, among many other success stories around the world.

Risks from economic development  

Despite all these gains there are still wide gaps in systems, capacities, understandings and applications. While there is downward trend in mortality, damages and losses due to disasters have increased manifold. Economic globalisation has led to massive increase in hazard exposure, as new private and public investments have been concentrated in hazardous areas, such as cyclone- and tsunami-prone coastlines, flood-prone river basins and in earthquake-prone cities. ‘Intensive’ risks of high-severity, low-frequency disasters have accumulated in hazard-exposed areas and are now transmitted around the world through supply chains, representing a systemic global economic risk for business, governments and society at large.

Poorly planned and managed urban development, environmental degradation, poverty and inequality and weak governance mechanisms continue to drive rapidly increasing loss and damage associated with low-severity high-frequency risks that are quite ‘extensive’. This has devastating impact on vulnerable low‐income households and small and informal enterprises that provide the vast majority of employment in many countries. Extensive risks are increasing even in countries and areas that are not exposed to major hazards, which highlight how both development and disaster risk reduction have not been sustainable and effective; this is particularly detrimental to low‐income communities.

These are all challenging issues that would surely be deliberated at the third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction on 14­­—18 March 2015 in Sendai, Japan. A decade after Indian Ocean tsunami, all initiatives must go on to reduce the risks of disasters for sustainable development for all. Ahead of Sendai they are due to be considered at the 15th  edition of the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS), 2015, to be held in New Delhi from 5—7 February 2015. The Energy and Resources Institute has been organising the DSDS to facilitate exchange of knowledge on various aspects of sustainable development.

P. G. Dhar Chakrabarti is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Resource & Environment Governance, Green Growth and Resource Efficiency, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). The views in this column are his own.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.


[1] Hyogo Framework of Action 2005-2015