View of the Flood: Lessons from Tbilisi / Shombi Sharp

from UN Development Programme
Published on 19 Jun 2015 View Original

It’s hard to believe all that has happened in the few days since I, like so many here, marvelled at the torrential rain coming down in those first evening hours the night of June 13. I drove home from a dinner a few hours later through streets beginning to flood even a bit higher up in the Vere valley. Little did I know that just below devastation was already underway as a major flash flood tore through Tbilisi, the picturesque capital city of Georgia.

Four short days after the disaster, as friends and loved ones are laid to rest, the people of Tbilisi are visibly gripped by a powerful mix of emotions. The overwhelming feelings of shock, loss and devastation, are confronted by an equally potent, almost unprecedented, sense of solidarity and pride as residents of all sorts stand literally shoulder to shoulder, willing their city back to life and extending helping hands to those who have suffered.

This impressing show of civic activism emerged almost immediately, spontaneously, in the early hours after the shocking extent of destruction became evident, buoying the already heroic efforts of emergency first responders. A strength and unity of Georgian society revealed itself as people of all ages took responsibility for their community into their own hands, often in still dangerous circumstances.

As a 21-year old volunteer said after a full day’s hard work clearing the rubble of destroyed buildings, “Now I see how people become citizens.”

However, along with this sense of solidarity comes a growing understanding that the national system of disaster management has to be strengthened. People are asking what might have been done differently to both save lives and reduce the extent of damage.

To date we know the flood took the lives of 19 people, with a handful still missing, and left at least 280 others homeless, destroying and damaging houses, roads and buildings across the central areas of the city closest to the Vere River, the usually calm waterway that swelled unimaginably that night, quickly breaking its banks. Landslides and mudflows in the catchment area of the Vere River, stretching as far as 30 kilometers away from the city, sent massive streams of mud, trees and other debris into the city which made the rising tides far more deadly.

The Tbilisi Zoo, which has been one of the city’s favourite sites for decades, was simply washed away. Nearly half of the 600 exotic animals perished quickly, while some 40 managed to escape into surrounding areas, including a hippopotamus, lions, tigers, bears, hyenas and wolves. A general panic fell across the city with surreal reports of predators on the loose. A few days later, just when things seemed to be calming down and many assumed the threat was over, news emerged that a white tiger had mauled several people, one of whom died. Later that afternoon, the police were frantically searching for another tiger spotted around the corner from where I had had lunch an hour or so earlier. As I write, an alert has been issued warning of “a predator” seen in the area of Turtle Lake, a popular summer destination in the hills above my house. That these latest reports are likely false alarms gives some comfort.

But this is a distraction from the real message. While Georgia remains in a state of shock following the tragic events in its beloved capital city, it is important to acknowledge the impressively vibrant recovery operation that has taken over, bringing together the authorities, civil society, international organizations and volunteers, all working together in the face of adversity. Social media sites continue to help match needs with people ready to make a difference at a moment’s notice. I for one have certainly learned about the power and resilience of community.

Very soon a national conversation will occur, or rather has already started, about understanding the reasons for the scale and scope of the disaster and nature of the response. Now is the time to have a frank discussion about the lack of sufficient preventative measures that can help the country manage crisis more effectively and prevent much of the impact from natural hazards. As a Deputy Mayor of Tbilisi told me during a crisis response coordination meeting, “this was a trigger event, we have to use it and learn from it to make changes if we want to save lives in the future”.

With this in mind, here are several critical issues that most likely will become central in such a debate and which we, at UNDP, will continue to focus on in our programming. We are already working closely with the authorities and international partners, including other UN agencies, the World Bank and EU, through a rapid response initiative launched within days of the crisis. We are bringing the comparative strengths of each organization to jointly identify the full scale of humanitarian impact, infrastructural damage and losses, and natural hazards and risks that will then drive a response plan addressing the most pressing needs. Of these, I would like to highlight a few of the most powerful takeaways from this experience:

1. Disaster Risk Reduction is not a luxury

Georgia has always been a high risk country in terms of disasters. But their frequency and intensity have increased over the past decade. National approaches to disaster management, like many countries in the region, still focus more on emergency response than prevention and preparedness. The recent flood is a clear example of this trend, as well as a number of occasions in the past, including the 2012 hailstorms in east Georgia and recurrent flooding in the Rioni River basin.

The way forward centres around building a sound system of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) integrated into state and municipal practices. UNDP, with our global experience in DRR and stakeholder coordination, is well positioned to help promote risk-informed development together with partners.

2. Urban planning for safe environment

For a rapidly developing country like Georgia, speed often takes precedent over sustainability. The economy has been growing fast in recent years as have cities and towns, keen to expand and modernize. Infrastructure growth, though impressive, remains poorly planned in the main Georgian cities of Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi. For example, Tbilisi still lacks an updated City Master Plan where infrastructure development is based on the clearly defined construction standards and thorough assessment of the environmental and social impact of growth. Updating this plan in the aftermath of the flood is now a priority for the city.

3. Early warning and communication can save lives

At times of crisis, accurate and timely information becomes a decisive factor in whether or not the loss of human life will be prevented. Despite many positive developments in this area in recent years, Georgia still lacks an early warning system that would allow for a swift and coordinated reaction to such a crisis. Implementing early warning measures, installing systems and infrastructure, enhancing coordinated crisis response, disaster preparedness and mitigation – these are all equally as important as an effective emergency response.

As so poignantly urged by the Deputy Mayor, if Georgians do not take advantage of the lessons of this ‘trigger event’, an opportunity will have been lost to save lives of future generations. Otherwise, any natural disaster in Georgia – no matter the size – will have the potential to cause far more significant loss and suffering than necessary.

On Saturday night, Tbilisi received two months of rain in a couple of hours, but the consequences didn’t have to be what they were. The catchment area of the Vere River remains dangerously unstable and vulnerable to another heavy rain. And there are of course untold numbers of other disaster scenarios, earthquakes chief among them, that could bring even worse consequences. This is why we are now working with our partners in the government, international community and civil society ‘around the clock’ not to lose this opportunity, not to leave people with the daunting prospect of having to take matters into their hands to save lives and protect their homes.

About the author

Shombi Sharp is the Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP in Georgia.