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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

India ill-equipped to respond to Haiti-style disaster

Published on Mon, Mar 15, 2010 at 13:25   |  Updated at Mon, Mar 15, 2010 at 14:27  |  Source : Reuters


Quake-prone India's lack of preparedness to deal with a Haiti-style earthquake will result in a poor and chaotic response with tens of thousands of casualties, the former U.N. chief responsible for immediate international disaster response said on Friday.

Arjun Katoch, former head of the U.N.'s Disaster Assessment and Coordination team (UNDAC) and the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), said the country did not meet even the basic requirements for disaster response.

"When an earthquake of high magnitude strikes north India, as it certainly will, we will suffer tens of thousands of casualties and our response will be poor and chaotic," Katoch, an Indian national, told AlertNet in an interview.

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Northern India -- which includes the capital New Delhi, a mega-conurbation of 14.1 million people, and other major cities -- and the Himalayan region are one of the most seismically active zones in the world.

The region has an average of 6 to 8 earthquakes of around 4.0 magnitude per month and of 6.0 magnitude and above every 10 years, according to the Indian Meteorological Department.

India's rapid economic growth over the last decade has seen massive unregulated urbanisation but emergency response preparations and building standards have not kept up with the changing reality of such changes.

"Construction standards across states like Uttaranchal, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam are substandard with very few buildings being earthquake resistant," said Katoch, adding that key buildings such as hospitals and fire stations needed to be updated to make them safer.

"The area is densely populated and casualties from a shallow earthquake of magnitude 7 as in Haiti would be likely to run into the hundreds of thousands."

The Jan 12 earthquake in Haiti killed more than 200,000 people and left over one million homeless.

Poor Preparation

In the last two decades, India has experienced two devastating earthquakes.

A magnitude 6.4 earthquake tore threw the Latur district in Maharashtra in 1993, killing almost 8,000 people and injuring around 30,000.

Eight years later, Kutch in Gujarat was hit by a more powerful quake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale, killing around 20,000 people and injuring 167,000 people.

Key emergency responders are badly equipped to deal with such disasters, said Katoch.

Fire brigades -- the primary responders in disasters -- are poorly funded making them one of the most "outdated, ill-equipped and neglected" institutions in the country, said Katoch, and most fire services are headed by police who have no experience and little interest in disaster response.

India also does not have any urban search and rescue teams, which meet the required U.N. standards, to remove people from collapsed structures.

Katoch said such teams were crucial and when deployed in Haiti after the quake they rescued over 130 people from collapsed buildings. Moreover, the armed forces -- which are the mainstay of disaster response in many countries -- need to be given a greater role in decision making process on disaster management.

"The Indian Ocean tsunami, Pakistan earthquake, Haiti and now Chile are examples of the centrality of the armed forces in response, and to keep the Indian armed forces away from response preparedness planning is the height of folly," he said.

No Power

Katoch criticised the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which he said lacked the power and resources to carry out its mandate with even the smallest decisions requiring approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs. Most of the NDMA's senior officials lacked disaster management experience, he said, adding that the authority was basically "reduced to preparing guidelines that few read or implement."

He said it was essential that the NDMA be allowed to function on its own with a professional team of experts who have full authority and resources or it should be brought under the mandate of the home ministry - rather than having shared accountability which left no one responsible.

"As things stand, if an earthquake as in Haiti happened here, our response would certainly be better, but not by very much," he said.

"This is not because we lack experience or resources but because bureaucracy, turf issues and an unprofessional management approach prevent us from developing an integrated and professional system for response to disasters."

"The spread of mobile phones with cameras and exposure through new media sites such as Facebook and Twitterwill ensure that this poor response is seen by the world and this has the potential to undermine the legitimacy of government."

Katoch, who retired as head of UNDAC and INSARAG last December, oversaw the international response to over 140 disasters around the world for more than 10 years.


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