Monsoon in the time of COVID-19: A dual disaster challenge

How can we deal with a pandemic and a water-related disaster come monsoon?

State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) rescue flood-affected residents following heavy monsoon rainfall, in Patna | PTI

India is currently in the middle of a national response to COVID-19, with varying degrees of success in different states. If predictions from WHO, national agencies, and experts are to be believed, we are in it for the long haul. While the country is at it, the recent announcement of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) of normal to above normal monsoon in August/September projections needs to be taken seriously; it is very likely that there will be severe water-related disasters in several parts of India after the onset of incoming monsoon. We are about to deal with and manage a double disaster. Going by NDMA Guidelines on Management of Biological Disasters, managing a pandemic is primarily the responsibility of Centre, whereas, according to the NDMA Guidelines on Floods, the primary responsibility for the management of floods lies with the state government. Cyclone Amphan in West Bengal and Orissa, an event which coincided with the pandemic, is a harbinger of the times ahead.

National Disaster Management Plan 2019 (NDMP), with particular reference to Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), noted that 'there is clear likelihood of increase in the frequency of extreme weather events and worse hydro-meteorological hazards'. It also notes significant changes in the rainfall pattern, increase in the frequency of high intensity rainfall events, larger rise in sea levels and storm surges and coastal inundation. Of the different types of natural disasters, in India, hydrological disasters have the largest number of recorded instances and the highest mortality and damage costs.

Dual challenges

For a disaster management system that is already strained and stretched by a biological disaster, the forecast of above-normal monsoon paints a grim picture—that of facing unprecedented, intertwined challenges of severe flooding along with the pandemic. This is because, at the onset of water-related disasters, people will be evacuated in large numbers to emergency shelters. Balancing the nature of facilities in such shelters while maintaining social distancing poses a challenge, especially when COVID-19 cases are seeing a resurgence. The frontline responders like health personnel, police, and civil administration, in both these disasters, are stretched thin. Financial and administrative resources at the Centre, and in most states, are also already under severe strain. A large section of our citizenry, who are bearing the brunt of lockdown, are poor and will be battered if hit by yet another calamity.

Dual management

The disaster management plans and guidelines that are in place currently, however, are not designed to simultaneously manage biological and natural disasters. The situation demands that the country must start preparing to manage dual disasters.

Taking note of damages by Cyclone Harold in the Pacific Island countries amid COVID-19, the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) issued a brief on ‘Combating the Dual Challenges of Covid-19 and Climate-Related Disasters’. Its key recommendations are to enhance multi-hazard risk preparedness, undertake proactive action to reduce vulnerability, protect frontline workers, and to support local action. It further warned the countries 'not lose sight of the need to protect the most vulnerable from the impacts of both’ and ‘to examine their current preparedness plans to ensure that they are in line with their COVID-19 efforts’.

Along with the implementation of UNDRR recommendations, it is necessary to identify the districts where there is a potential intersection of these two disasters and to judiciously allocate available resources. An important task will be to create enough manpower by recruiting volunteers and civil society to support district administration, NDRF, SDRF, and other frontline workers. Accommodating disaster-affected populations in small groups by reducing contacts is the prime concern during a dual crisis. The idea of converting railway coaches into isolation wards and shelters with toilets, pantry, and clinics has been novel during COVID-19 and this could be very effectively utilised by moving into these identified districts. Moreover, a disaster is akin to dealing with an extraordinary situation; Section 65 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (DM Act) gives extraordinary powers to authorities in identifying and making available private hostels, hotels, and vacant houses.

Further, we now know that states in India where local authorities were empowered were efficient, responsive and better managed the COVID-19 crisis. This vast administrative and political potential must be tapped to act as a real focal point of disaster management activities in accordance with the spirit of section 41 of the DM Act. The National Policy on Disaster Management, 2009, declares that “a holistic and integrated approach will be evolved” including “community-based disaster management” and mandates vital role for “local authorities including Panchayat Raj Institutions and Municipalities”. Empowering these institutions will also act as a better coordination mechanism at the ground level. At every phase of disaster management, National Policy envisages the involvement of the local community. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 adopted by the United Nations highlights the importance of community involvement in disaster management endeavours.

Finally, the country continues to witness how our migrant workers are affected. It is a truism that all disasters have unimaginable effect on the lower strata of society. A dual disaster will have far more adverse effects, and identifying and insulating the vulnerable section must come as a priority. As detailed above, biological disaster response is led by the Centre, and flood related disaster is being led by the states. With the possibility of floods, we may witness role reversal in terms of management of response with the state leading and Centre assuming a supportive role by making necessary changes. Under this possible dual disaster, federalism is about to be tested again.

Jacob P. Alex is an advocate at High Court of Kerala and M. P. Ram Mohan teaches at IIM Ahmedabad. Views are personal.