Kerala has shaken up its disaster response system by spelling out roles and responsibilities of each department clearly in a revised handbook of the state disaster management cell. This is in view of heading on to another monsoon year, coming after its tragical experience while battling cyclone Ockhi in 2017 and the state's worst floods in 2018.
A day after the southwest monsoon made its onset over Kerala two days ago, with a delay of seven days, India Meteorological Department (IMD) has warned of a cyclonic storm building along the southern coast on Sunday. The state disaster management officials told Mint that they are closely watching the developments.
"In the past, monsoon preparedness directives used to be sent out only as a government circular. The roles and responsibilities of individual departments were not spelled out in a single document clearly. The handbook has details of roles and responsibilities of monsoon preparedness and emergency response of 29 official departments, central agencies and district management authorities and State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC)," said Sekhar Kuriakose, who was in charge of the handbook's preparation as the head of Kerala State Disaster Management Authority, the nodal authority to handle any disasters. "This handbook is a start. We need to handle rain-related disasters with the same planning and precision as conducting an election."
The handbook, published on 25 May, has updated the standard operating procedures for various state departments and adopt new protocols for enhancing emergency preparedness and response capacity. For example, the state water board and electricity board are asked to notify district-level disaster monitoring cells about the status of dams and plans of controlling their outflow before 10 June. It lists the availability of disaster response teams set up with trained members of the civil society, and guidelines to set up relief camps. It has asked the tourism department to restrict visitors if there are more than two days of intense rain in a location. The water board is told to post a person round the clock, to liaison with the emergency disaster management cell, whose job will be to monitor daily rainfall and water levels in dams. The plans mentioned are also asked to be updated with time, ideally every year after receiving the first long-range forecast of IMD, according to the document.
The document also calls for continuing attention to bring official and public notice to the state’s weather features. Previously, Kerala had reworked the social media pages of the disaster management cell and improved its outreach with media outlets, sharing constant updates on crucial weather updates. It has brought out an app ‘Qkopy’ for the same. A hotline phone is also in the works, for direct communication with National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), at a regional center of the cell at Thrissur district.
During 2018 floods, there was a major hue and cry about the dams opened without proper plans and lack of adequate monitoring. Many, including the ruling government’s legislators, alleged that the public was caught unaware when the officials opened dams without wide public announcement. The guidelines in the handbook will turn crucial in the face of a disaster, since no single department would not be able to handle a disaster situation alone and coordination would turn crucial.
"In an era of climate change, decision making is to be done with limited data and large uncertainties in forecasts. This is the challenge and this challenge can be overcome only by scientific planning based on experience," said Kuriakose.
In 14 years between 2005 and 2018, Kerala received more rains than expected eight times. The abstract numbers of 2018 floods pegged the overall economic losses at ₹ 30,000 crores, the death toll at 400 people, and the displaced count at an estimated five million. The deluge razed thousands of houses and crippled large swathes of the economy.