India

Fani's hard lesson on resilient infrastructure

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By Omar H. Amach

BANGKOK, 7 May 2019 – Considered one of the worst storms to hit India since 1999, Cyclone Fani made landfall in the state of Odisha on 3 May as a category 4 storm. Odisha, however, is no stranger to cyclones. In 1999, a super cyclone killed 9,885 people according to the official death toll. This time around, 16 people died.

Last month, the state upgraded its early warning system to increase its reach to all members of the public via 122 siren towers in six coastal districts. The warnings, coupled with the work of national and state disaster forces, helped evacuate 1.2 million people into nearly 4,000 shelters before cyclone Fani hit, saving many lives.

Following the 1999 cyclone, the state established the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) as the first dedicated disaster management agency in India, six years before the federal government set up its national agency. It also built 800 cyclone and flood shelters, invested in early warning systems, created a Disaster Rapid Action Force, and conducted public awareness campaigns.

More recently, with support from the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), it became one of few Indian states to create a disaster loss database and to report its progress in meeting the targets of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

“Odisha’s preparedness, early warning system, and quick action have clearly succeeded in saving lives and averting a tragedy,” said Ms Loretta Hieber Girardet, Head of UNDRR in Asia-Pacific.

By the second day, the storm had weakened into a tropical depression as it began to make its way to southwestern Bangladesh, where authorities followed Odisha's example and were able to move over a million people out of harm’s way through a massive evacuation. Reports indicate 12 people died there as a result of Fani.

While mortality has been low, a clearer picture is emerging now of the extent of physical damage Fani left in its wake, especially to critical infrastructure.

The State Minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, said in a statement: “For the district of Puri and parts of Khurda where the electricity infrastructure has been totally devastated, we have the challenge of having to set up the entire electrification afresh.”

The city of Puri, famous for its holy sites and tourist attractions, was hit especially hard by Fani. Media reports said thousands were homeless and the city had completely lost power and communications.

Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar, also suffered considerable damage with reports of blackouts and downed communication lines. At the Bhubaneswar airport, the passenger terminal building was considerably damaged, and the rooftop of the airport traffic control tower was blown away, according to India's Ministry of Civil Aviation.

These reports point to the need for more investment in disaster resilient infrastructure. Constructing resilient infrastructure and retrofitting existing ones can help minimize the disruption of services, lower economic losses, and expedite response and recovery efforts.

“India is a world leader in the promotion of resilient infrastructure. I am confident the authorities will closely assess the damage caused by Fani and integrate its lessons into their reconstruction plans to ensure resilience in the future,” said Ms Hieber Girardet.

In March, the Indian government, along with UNDRR and a number of partners, announced an agreement to establish a Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI). The goal of the CDRI is to transform “how infrastructure is designed, constructed, operated and maintained,” according to India’s National Disaster Management Authority.

It is only by combining the benefits of understanding risk, preparedness, early warning and resilient infrastructure that we can obtain the full resilience dividend.