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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Early warning systems for floods and international law

Early warning systems for floods and international law

We need better early warning systems and prevention as well as mitigation systems for floods such as the one in Chamoli earlier this year that cause widespread damage.

We face a constant risk of floods and need better systems to mitigate their damagePremium
We face a constant risk of floods and need better systems to mitigate their damage

A common debate to achieve harmony between development and environmental safety has been ever growing. However, with increasing extreme weather events in the 21st century and continuing climate change, the role of the early warning, mitigation and adaptation mechanisms along with the need to inspire trust in the residents of the region must be emphasized upon. One of the extreme weather events that has affected many regions especially in 2021 are floods. The human impacts of floods are huge and cause death, displacement and injuries. After a record rainfall western Europe was inundated and left traumatized by the floods in Germany. The Germans were taken by surprise due to the gravity and scale of the flood. These floods have highlighted that even developed nations like Germany are unprepared to prevent, mitigate and manage impacts from sudden-onset disasters like floods. 

Another country that is facing floods in many parts of its territory is India. One of the many recent floods hit in the Chamoli district in the state of Uttarakhand in India on 7 February, highlighting the importance of disaster management mechanisms. The disaster occurred in the upper catchment of the Rishiganga river, a tributary of the Alaknanda, which led to sudden rise in the water level of the Rishiganga that destroyed the Rishiganga hydropower project as well as the Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project.

Indian topography is susceptible to floods. This means they are an annual risk that is bound to materialize in certain provinces. The national floods committee in India has attributed anthropogenic factors to floods in India and its consequential disastrous effects. India’s government has highlighted several  gaps in flood management and underdeveloped flood forecasting, and early warning systems remain key to these gaps. Other gaps include lack of implementation of the flood management programs, lack of public participation in decision-making and lack of accurate information on floods in Germany. One major factor however is lack of adequate financial resources to prepare and respond to floods. 

Another country that has been at the risk of floods due to its topography and position below the sea-level is Netherlands.  The country is, however, not a victim to continuous flooding, and has largely emerged as a survivor by focusing on recovery from flooding and land reclamation. The Dutch are known to have developed dykes for centuries to increase flood prevention, and the issues surrounding water safety have been part of their lives. Going further, with an aim to ensure regional cooperation, they have in place The Safety Regions Act that seeks to achieve an efficient and high-quality organization of the fire services, medical assistance and crisis management under one regional management board. The overarching aim of the Act being to structure the vulnerable regions similar to how the police regions are marked.

The current Dutch water safety approach or flood risk management focuses on flood preparedness as well as flood prevention and mitigation. In this context, disaster management does not merely include efforts to develop an adequate disaster management system, but also to raise awareness and resilience that led to the formation of the Flood Management Taskforce, the rationale being that the impact of a possible flood can be reduced by empowering the society to handle the crisis by mitigating the impact of extreme weather events that in turn protects the country from flooding. 

The rules and guidelines within the international disaster response law address the roles and responsibilities to mange and respond to disasters, minimize impact of disasters and reduce disaster risks. Although, there is no comprehensive legal framework that can single-handedly guide international disaster law. There are, however, regional laws, bilateral agreements and aspects of disaster law covered under international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law. This gap underscores the need to have a legal framework in place and enhance disaster law and response both at the international and national level. 

At the international level, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, set forth an opportunity for the nations to adopt disaster risk reduction and disaster laws at the national level and guide them. The Sendai framework may guide the disaster related policy work of the countries at the national, regional and bilateral level. It is a successor for the Hyogo Framework for action, which guided international disaster response law, along with other laws. The Sendai Framework recognizes that “reduction of disaster risk is a common concern for all states" and therefore all states have related responsibilities. It requires shared action, cooperation, engagement and partnership. It sets out for priorities for disasters, i.e. understanding disaster risk, strengthening disaster risk reduction for resilience, investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience and enhancing preparedness for response and for “building back better". 

The base of these disaster priority action is the understanding and foreseeability of various aspects of a disaster. This means developing data to understand disasters, their risks, the foreseeability of the event and ultimately the infrastructure of disseminate this information for action. The gravity of the Chamoli district disaster India is linked to the absence of necessary monitoring, early warning systems and the overall disaster management system. 

What this means is that the mechanism to collect relevant scientific data about the disaster, foresee and predict its occurrence, and ultimately disseminate the information to those at risk has several gaps and proved ineffective in India. To illustrate, the first information of the disaster in India came from social media.  However, according to the director of  Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, which is a an autonomous Natural Resources  research institute under the Department of Sciences and Technology, Ministry of Sciences and Technology, Government of India,  there was sufficient time to  predict the disaster and evacuate all the people at risk. 

In this context, a United Nations University report that was published in January 2021 assumes significance as it highlights the need to dismantle old and unsafe dams, that are highly likely to cause disasters and flooding. The report states that the responsibility of the government towards the issue of safety of dams in India and need for decommissioning unsafe, old dams. The issue of dam safety is not dealt with by any legislation, and a bill is pending before the Parliament. Furthermore, there exists inadequate database and community or sector-specific adaptation and mitigation strategies that helps in identifying the vulnerable communities and sectors and helps in enhancing learning among the masses and ensuring accountability of those responsible. There are gaps with collection of data or information in relation to disaster risk in India and in relation to dissemination of this data through early warning systems. 

India, however, is the not the only country that suffers from such gap. This systemic gap was also highlight during the German floods. The flood alert system or the early warning system in Germany was a ‘monumental failure’. The gravity and scale of damage during the German floods could have been avoided, only if, the early warning systems were effective and the German government was overall better prepared. The failure arose because early warning was not applied and acted upon “as a matter of policy", consequently leading to death, distress and disaster. The European Early Warning System had issued a warning of disastrous floods, as early as a week ago. The Dutch government followed this warning with issuance of early evacuation warnings and evacuations, while the German government did not act on the early warnings. 

The Dutch Government has an advanced early warning and alert system for disasters and life threatening situations. They test their sirens regularly in order to ascertain that they signs work properly, specially in emergency situations. The Dutch practice has been considered a good practices due to many proven benefits of the system in this digital age and climate change. The early warning system in the Netherlands had its shortcomings when it was developed initially. However, with habituation and practice the floods’ warning system has become an advanced life saving tool. If this tool in implemented in countries like India and for occurrence like the floods in Germany, then life and property of millions can be saved and damage reduced. 

Abhinav Mehrotra is lecturer and Chhaya Bharadwaj is assistant professor at OP Jindal Global University.

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Published: 22 Sep 2021, 07:33 PM IST
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