Saturday, September 27, 2014

Disaster Preparedness

Sikkim cannot afford to forget
Disaster preparedness should have nuanced the mood last week as Sikkim marked the third anniversary of the 18 September Earthquake. The monumental temblor had pulled a wicked surprise on Sikkim, not an easy trick to play on a region which has lived for centuries with extreme weather conditions – at one time luxuriating at nature at its most indulgent and at others cowering under nature at its most devastating.
The surprise of 18/09/11 stemmed not so much from the unprecedented scale of the earthquake as from the inexcusable fact that Sikkim forgot that it occupies a disaster prone sector the subcontinent. As for the earthquake itself, the only surprise it can stake claim to is in its confirmation that Sikkim harboured tectonic potential to push a 6.8 scale earthquake. Through the recorded history of earthquakes in the region, the big ones of the past century and a half [which wreaked substantial damage in Sikkim as well] had been earthquakes with their epicentres at “established/ identified” troublespots, at fault-lines many hundred kilometres away from Sikkim. In some warped sense of misplaced security, this had apparently convinced people and policy-makers at a subconscious level in these parts that the State could do very little to cushion the impact of the next big one and that Sikkim’s distance from the expected ground zeros would absorb some of the fury and dissipate the impact. This was admittedly wrong because no one can prevent an earthquake, but everyone can and should work towards mitigating it. And now, even the excuse of distance is no longer available with the tectonic plates on which Sikkim sits announcing that even they can pack a mean punch. In effect then, natural disasters are no longer about ‘if’ and ‘when’ and have now become ‘here and now’.
And now, as the amplified fury of end-monsoon showers are bringing home, it’s not just about earthquakes, but a host of other challenges like landslides, cloudbursts, GLOFs etc and if the winter runs dry, there will be forest fires and man-animal conflicts as well. Natural disasters do not play in isolation and when these incidents achieve disaster proportions, they work in combinations. Three years since the devastation of September 2011, after Sikkim has recollected the experience and taken stock of repairs and restoration, it should test the practicability and resoluteness of its proposed responses for future calamities. Modern lifestyles have a way of blindsiding obvious realities, and if any lesson is to be learnt from the 18 September horror, it should be in rediscovering the traditional knowledge base. Centuries of living in a particular region grooms people to instinctively respect the brute force of nature and adopt lifestyles which mitigate the impact of the nature of disasters indigenous to a particular region. Sikkim obviously had this, but lost it in the past fifty years or so. These need to be remembered and all disaster preparedness plans should respect the knowhow of resident populations and reinforce traditional practises with scientific verification and planning.
This anniversary, Sikkim spent too much time taking record of its repairs and rebuilding exercise. While this is necessary, it is also important that it revisits the trauma – a continuing plight for many – so that it does not forget. Then, it will also prepare better instead of only repairing.

1 comment:

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