Himalaya 'tsunami' shows need for science in disaster plans

by Erin Berger | @erineberger | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 26 July 2013 07:30 GMT

Soldiers assist a woman carrying a child on her back during rescue operations in Govindghat in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand June 23, 2013. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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The information is there to help prevent disasters - but it has to reach policymakers, in a form they can use, a study says

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As India’s northern state of Uttarakhand recovers from mid-June’s devastating flash floods and residents wonder when their lives might return to normal, another question lingers: How can similar tragedies be prevented in a country already prone to natural disasters?

India is already equipped with many of the scientific resources necessary for good disaster management, argues a policy brief from Integrated Action on Resilience and Global Sustainability. The problem is a lack of collaboration between knowledge-creating and policy-making bodies.

“One of the primary things we need to understand is the role of science in society, basically,” said the author of the brief, Jyotiraj Patra. “There’s a huge gap in terms of people producing knowledge and people using that knowledge. Everybody’s operating in silos.”

Leading up to the Uttarakhand floods, for example, there was plenty of evidence that should have raised alarms about the need to prepare for an extreme weather event, Patra said. Monsoons in the region have become more and more erratic, he said, and authorities should have better anticipated and prepared for the earlier and heavier rains than usual that triggered the “Himalayan tsunami.”

“The evidence was all there, but it wasn’t being understood by or communicated to policy makers,” he said. “I think that contributed (to the amount of harm done) to a high degree. Once you understand that your weather system is very unpredictable, that has to be translated to tangible policy-making instruments.”


His evaluation pointed to a need for “knowledge brokers” who can bridge this gap between the science and policymaking communities. They could present scientific evidence to policymakers in a way that is useful to them, and help scientists understand the kind of knowledge that policymakers need to take critical steps.

One example of where this would be helpful is early warning systems. Before the Uttarakhand floods, the meteorological department said it put out a warning, “but people said there was no early warning and no information as to the intensity of rainfall,” Patra said. The discrepancy could lie in the fact that forecasting was not produced in a way that was useable for those responsible for disaster management, he said.

Better forecasting and disaster prevention measures could help with the range of weather extremes India is vulnerable to, among them droughts, cyclones and snowstorms.

Patra acknowledged that creating joined-up action to prevent disasters is a huge task that will require people in a range of different fields to work together and to consider everything from environmental to social and political factors.

The risk of disaster “is an outcome of multiple interactions of underlying social, economic, environmental, political and cultural factors.” Considering all of these drivers would make for much more effective disaster risk policies, he said.

Any actions taken in advance of the Uttarakhand floods “were too little and too late,” Patra said. The ill-preparation for extreme weather in the region was particularly serious given the large numbers of tourists and religious pilgrims in the area at the time, he said.

Patra added that communities in the area also did not receive nearly enough support after the disaster, which left 6000 people missing and now presumed dead and disrupted the lives of some 2 million people.


Uttarakhand introduced a revised climate change action plan in June 2012, which included plans for climate vulnerability risk assessments and capacity building for effective planning. “But the identified strategies haven’t been fully (implemented),” Patra said.

Patra sees promise in some recent developments. The Planning Commission of India recently sought advice on disaster preparedness from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a Kathmandu-based research centre, for example.

And the national government launched a new platform for interdisciplinary dialogue in May. The National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction aims to bring more voices to the table and integrate disaster management into development planning.

Patra would like to see a place for knowledge brokers in the process, but remains hopeful that it will result in some helpful connections between scientists, policymakers and practitioners.

“This is definitely an opportunity to understand how the disaster management framework of the country, science policy, and innovation instruments are coming together,” Patra said. “We have disasters in India very often. We need to learn from them.”

Erin Berger is a Thomson Reuters Foundation intern, writing on climate change issues.

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