Early Warning: Saving Lives in India

Ten years after the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami, the investments of coastal governments in India, in systems that alert people early about disasters, are helping save millions of lives.

For a country of 1.2 billion, where nearly one-third of the population lives in coastal areas – at risk from not only tsunamis, but also cyclones and storm surges – these early warning systems are proving vital time and again.

The benefits of early warning and preparedness can been seen in two successive cyclones that hit India’s east coast in the last two years, compared to the cyclones several years ago.

In October 2014, when powerful Cyclone Hudhud struck Odisha and Andhra Pradesh on the country’s eastern coast, there was widespread destruction, and 46 people were reported killed.

Almost exactly a year earlier, Cyclone Phailin, the strongest storm to hit India in more than a decade, had swept across the Bay of Bengal and battered the same area.

In comparison to cyclones past, the death toll represented a dramatic drop. It was also indicative of the preparedness measures put into place.

For instance, four days before Phailin struck the area was evacuated and a staggering 1.2 million people were moved to safer areas. Phailin’s devastating blow caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, and affected the livelihoods of millions of people, but only 21 people died.

In contrast, a 1999 cyclone in that very area had a much more devastating impact, killing 10,000 people. Similarly, the 2004 tsunami took the lives of about 10,000 people in India – 75 percent of them women and children – and wrecked towns and villages in several coastal states.

Since then and now, much has changed.

A Global Model for Early Warning

Under the leadership of the government, UNDP has worked extensively, at both the national and sub-national level, with officials, civil society groups and volunteers to better prepare communities to manage disaster risks, particularly by strengthening early warning systems in tsunami-affected states.

“India’s experience has demonstrated to the world that combining strong disaster alert mechanisms with empowered communities can dramatically reduce the loss of life from disasters,” says Lise Grande, United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative.

Following the tsunami, the Government of India has taken major steps to build early warning systems. At the national level, India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences has established the National Tsunami Early Warning System at the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. The Indian Meteorological Department has developed systems for issuing accurate warnings and generating real-time weather reports that are provided to disaster management agencies and emergency support service responders.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, UNDP and other United Nations partners provided technical assistance to help establish systems to track damages, monitor progress of relief and recovery projects, and address grievances. Later, UNDP provided technical assistance to help set up early warning systems. Emergency Operation Centres in all five coastal districts in Tamil Nadu, one of the worst-affected states, were equipped with public address systems and networked with Very High Frequency wireless communication networks.

The Tamil Nadu government, with funding from the World Bank, is building on this initiative and setting up early warning systems using advanced technologies to reach 36 million people that live in densely populated coastal areas. Other coastal states at risk, including Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, are part of the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project, which has also established early warning and dissemination systems.

Prioritizing Community-Based Disaster Risk Management

In a flagship partnership with the Ministry of Home Affairs, UNDP has helped to develop the capabilities of communities to mitigate the impact of disaster. The partnership, which evolved into one of the largest community-based disaster risk management programmes in the world, has reached more than 300 million people across 150,000 villages in high-risk areas, and has better equipped them to tackle disaster.

Communities have been empowered to handle emergency response equipment, understand warning alerts, and take action. Training manuals in English and local languages have been widely disseminated, ensuring that communities are alert to measures they can take to ensure their safety when disaster strikes.

The success of such preparedness was demonstrated during cyclones Hudhud and Phailin. Warning messages, including coordinates of the impending cyclone’s location and intensity, were communicated in the days prior to the landfall of Phailin through constant news coverage via broadcast, print and online media, email and fax, telephone, text messages, and loudspeakers. Satellite phones were distributed to representatives in the 14 most vulnerable districts to ensure that warnings and information continued to be communicated during the storm.

Taking Early Action

During Phailin, Odisha authorities were able to order emergency control rooms to function around the clock, and to position thousands of rapid-action disaster field officers, in advance, to assist with evacuations and brace for search and rescue operations. Likewise, arrangements were made to stockpile food, drinking water, and medicine for those affected. All cyclone and flood shelters were checked and readied to house evacuees, while earthmovers and other road-clearing machinery was requisitioned to facilitate movement of relief materials to hard-hit areas.

In addition, special attention has been paid to fisherfolk, often the worst hit when disaster strikes coastal areas. They have been trained to recognize warning signs to ensure their own safety. For instance, INCOIS has collaborated with one of the country’s premier research institutions, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, to develop the Fisher Friend Network, which ensures safety at sea and improves the livelihood of fisherfolk. Aided by the power of communication technology, fisherfolk now receive regular ocean weather forecasts, early warnings about adverse weather conditions, and advisories on potential fishing zones.

Coping With Emerging Challenges

Despite the advances in preparedness, key interventions to reduce disaster risk are still needed in many parts of the country. In Jammu and Kashmir state, high in India’s northwestern Himalayan region and far from vulnerable coastal areas, “abnormal” amounts of rainfall are becoming a regular occurrence despite near-drought in surrounding areas. This heavy precipitation causes floods almost every year in this mountainous state – including in 2014. This makes improvement of early warning systems for floods an urgent priority, to improve the timeliness and precision of flood forecasting.

Less than four weeks after Phailin struck India, Typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest “supertyphoons” ever to make landfall, brought heavy rains, raging storm surges and damaging winds to Philippines and Viet Nam. While many people were saved, 4,000 perished. Many refused to leave their homes, or were unable to take refuge in a shelter that could withstand the storm.

The Haiyan experience illustrates the magnitude of resources required simply to accommodate evacuation, contend with the vulnerability to extreme waves and wind, the vulnerability of typhoon shelters, and the critical importance of community awareness and leadership.

Back in India, however, many of the challenges of the Haiyan experience are receding into the past. Now, the focus has shifted to expanding early warning systems to areas that lie beyond the country’s coastline. Climate change is adding a new and intractable dimension to vulnerability, one which threatens the resilience of millions of people across the country. India’s success will depend on its ability to orient governance mechanisms, people and communities to this emerging challenge.

UNDP’s partnership with the Ministry of Home Affairs focuses on strengthening the capabilities of state and district management authorities to reduce risk, and address climate change. As they develop plans to mitigate climate change and adapt to new realities, states and districts are already channeling public investment and taking action to try to minimize the negative impacts of climate-induced disasters.