Managing Extreme Natural Disasters in Coastal Areas (Part 4) by M S Swaminathan

This blog is from the series Science and Sustainable Food Security- Selected Papers of Prof. M S Swaminathan. This particular paper is written by P. C. Kesavan AND M. S. Swaminathan and published on Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

In the previous blogs, we discussed the following:

1. Perspectives on extreme natural disasters

2. Vulnerability to disasters 

3. Vicious spiral between poverty, environmental degradation and natural disasters

4. How to mainstream disaster management into sustainable development

In this blog, we will continue to look at the factors that co-relate to natural disasters and sustainable ways to manage them.

(b) Bottom-up participatory management of Bioshield in the coastal regions

  • During the decades preceding the 1990s, the degradation of mangrove forests in India was unbridled. 
  • The current mangrove area worldwide has fallen below 15 million ha, down from 19.8 million ha in 1980 although the rate of mangrove deforestation has decreased in the 1990s from that of the 1980s (Mayaux et al. 2005). 
  • With substantial financial support from the India-Canada Environmental Facility (ICEF), the MSSRF took up a massive restoration of the mangrove forests in the coastal areas of West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. 
  • Systematic studies on the causes of degradation whether natural or human-influenced were first carried out, and then suitable methods to ensure successful restoration were followed. 
  • A very substantial number of nursery materials of different mangrove species was required. 
  • This provided an opportunity to train local women and men SHGs for raising nursery material. 
  • In doing so, they became aware of the role of mangrove trees and shrubs in providing nutrients to fish, prawns and crabs.
  • The meaning of the traditional saying by fishermen in the Andaman sea, 'mangroves are the roots of the sea' became clear. 
  • The realization that their livelihood security was closely entwined with the security of the mangrove ecosystem was profound. Emergence of new harmony between the mangrove-dependent rural communities and the mangrove forests prompted the MSSRF to develop a model for joint mangrove management (JMM), to be adopted and replicated by the Forest Department which manages mangrove wetlands in India. 
  • JMM aims at joint participation and sharing of experiences in mangrove management by the Forest Department, the mangrove user community (particularly the women), related government departments and non-governmental organizations in all mangrove management functions-resource mapping, planning, regeneration, protection and benefit-sharing (The Mangrove Decade and Beyond 2002).
  • The role of mangrove species acting as a bioshield to reduce the destructive potential of cyclones and tsunami became evident during the Orissa supercyclone in October 1999 and the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004. 
  • In tsunami-affected Pichavaram in Tamil Nadu, the hamlets located between the sea and the mangroves were severely affected and many were destroyed, with a few deaths and substantial damage to houses, boats and fishing nets. 
  • On the other hand, the hamlets within the physical cover of the mangrove forest were largely protected, and there were no tsunami-associated deaths at alL Remote sensing (figure 6), ground-based data (Selvam et al.in press), and eyewitness accounts of the survivors of the two natural disasters have convinced the Indian government, the non-governmental organizations and coastal communities of the protective role of the mangrove forest.
  • Wherever these have been degraded, plans are afoot for planting mangrove, Casuarina and other suitable species along the shoreline. 
  • Danielsen et al. (2005) have demonstrated the protective role of the mangrove Bioshield in a tsunami-affected region in Tamil Nadu. These post-tsunami observations are largely in accordance with the analytical models showing that 30 trees per 100 m2 in a 100 m wide belt may reduce the maximum tsunami flow pressure by more than 90% (Hiraishi & Harada 2003). 
  • In addition, coral reefs are also as important as the BioShield. For island state countries like the Maldives, which are just a metre above sea level, coral reefs provide ecological and economic security. The corals and their ecosystem are major tourist attractions (Moberg & Folke 1999).

In areas, where the edaphic and hydrological conditions are not favourable for putting up a mangrove bioshield, the plans are to go for non-mangrove species like Casuarina, followed by salt-tolerant species such as Pandanus, coconut, cashewnut, etc. 

Intercropping of these with low input and high-value crops (pulses, spices, fruit crops depending upon the soil, climate, etc.) would combine ecology (bioshield) and economy (livelihood). 

The strong and harmonious relationships among ecology, economics, and development not only reduce the death and devastation by natural disasters, but also enhance the coping capacity of the local rural communities. Mangrove species are an effective carbon sink and so would contribute to remedying the imbalance between carbon emissions and carbon absorption.


(c) Community-centred cyclone/tsunami shelters, and food, fodder and water banks

  • In areas highly vulnerable to cyclones, tsunamis, surge storms, etc., the MSSRF's model of Community Seed, Grain, Water Banks (figure 7 a, b; i.e. banks with a difference) can help in enhancing the coping power of the people during a natural hazard. 
  • Often the transport and communication are severely disrupted by natural disasters, and the worse-hit areas are almost completely cut-off from the rest of the world. 
  • The initial relief measures invariably consist of food packets dropped from aircrafts and helicopters. 
  • The least developed countries may not have the capacity to do even this. In several hydro-meteorological disaster-prone areas, such relief measures are an annual feature.
  • A decentralized, community-centered grain and water (food) bank would be able to provide relief almost immediately, and avoid 'transient hunger'. Built into this 'bottom-up' model is a suitable storage system.

The storage facilities could be traditional, conforming to traditional knowledge and ethos, but incorporating modern scientific inputs to withstand the impacts of natural disasters. The MSSRF facilitated putting up two multi-purpose cyclone shelters in the cyclone-prone coastal villages of Orissa. These are a safe haven during extreme natural hazards such as cyclones, windstorms and floods. 

  • These could also be linked in the neighbourhood with food and water banks, as well as first-aid facilities. 
  • Modern information and communication technology (ICT)-based village knowledge centres (VKCs) provided in these shelters will also help internet facilities for communication during emergency (§4d). 
  • Women, children and the infirm should be evacuated to these shelters as soon as early warning is received. 
  • The availability of first-aid, food and water would enhance the coping capacity of the communities during the disaster. 
  • The details of the community seed, grain, water and fodder banks, as well as their role in ensuring food security, are found in the book titled, 'Community Grain Bank' (2001) jointly published by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation and the World Food Programme, New Delhi.

(d) Modern lCT-based VKCs for extreme natural hazard management

  • With a firm conviction and foresight that knowledge empowerment of rural women and men is crucial for sustainable development and poverty reduction, the MSSRF set up in 1997 what was then referred to as village information centres. These are now called VKCs. 
  • Wherever telephone lines are not available, connectivity is established through a wired-wireless hybrid technology. 
  • Particular attention is given to creating content that is time- and locale-specific and demand-driven. 
  • The time- and locale-specific and demand-driven information pertain to weather, crop and animal husbandry, integrated pest management, market trends and prices of local commodities, health care, immunization of children, poverty alleviation schemes of the government, details of eco-enterprises, transport, education, etc. 
  • A good example of value-addition to generic information that has been acclaimed the world over is the 48 h advance information on the sea wave heights in the Bay of Bengal provided round the clock for the benefit of the fishermen in a small village, Veerampattinam, in the union territory of Pondicherry. 
  • In this case, the MSSRF downloads the data on the sea wave heights from the US Naval website, which is unclassified and generic. 
  • The MSSRF enhances the value of this information by pinpointing the sea wave heights close to Veerampattinam. 
  • The value-added information so gained from the use of high technology is announced in Tamil, the local vernacular, through low-tech loudspeakers. 
  • The need to use loudspeakers arises from the fact that some of the fishers cannot read and most of them are totally engrossed in their work. Over the years, the fishers have acknowledged how useful this timely, locale-specific and value-added information has been in avoiding risk to lives on the sea in their country rafts (Catamaran). The fisher women are very relieved that their men would not be caught in a severe cyclonic storm, and drown in the sea.
  • The village knowledge revolution launched by the MSSRF in a few villages in 1997 involved integrated use of the internet, cable TV, radio and the vernacular press. 
  • The experience reveals that the internet-radio combination is particularly powerful for 'reaching the unreached' and 'voicing the voiceless' in rural India (figure 8).
  • The success of the VKCs set up by the MSSRF is not only because of their time- and locale-specific, value-added, demand-driven information content, but also the basic principles of these being user-controlled, and user-managed with strong social and gender equities. 
  • In fact, in almost all the VKCs, young women who have studied up to seventh or eighth class and have learnt computer literacy are the operators and managers. The experience of the MSSRF is that given a sense of ownership and training, the rural youth take to making use of the internet like a fish to water.

On the morning of 26 December 2004, the VKC with its loudspeaker system saved many lives in the village Veerampattinam. It so happened that on that fateful Sunday morning, a few young men sitting on the seashore noticed the strange behaviour of the sea. The sea first receded and at the very rear, as far eyes could see, the waves were rising alarmingly high. Guessing that something was drastically wrong, they rushed to the VKC and used the loudspeakers to ask the

women, children and men to run to higher grounds away from the seashore. 

This saved the lives of all those who were minding their business in their huts and outside close to the shoreline. Damage to property was inevitable but precious human lives were saved.

With the initiatives of the MSSRF and support of the Government of India, there is now a vigorous movement, by mobilizing the power of partnership, of National Alliance for Mission 2007: Every Village a Knowledge Centre (figure 9).

  • The goal of Mission 2007 is to have a knowledge centre in each of the 600 000 plus villages of India by the year 2007, which marks the 60th anniversary of India's Independence.
  • At present, 40 VKCs have been set up in various states as indicated by arrows (figure 10), in addition to 13 Village Resource Centres (hubs) each of which has connectivity with several villages falling within a radius of approximately 25 km.
  • The work has picked up momentum involving scores of organizations each concentrating on a particular region/state of the country.
  • In the disaster-prone rural areas, at least one woman and one man will need to be trained to make use of the internet, GIS, remote sensing and communication systems. GIS can help in improving the quality and power of analysis of mitigation measures and in the implementation of emergency preparedness and response action. 
  • Identification of hazardous areas and monitoring the planet for its changes on a real time basis and to give early warning about many impending disasters is now possible with remote sensing.
  • Practical ways of integrating disaster management with sustainable development are summarized by Swaminathan (2005b). 
  • As a medium- and long-term rehabilitation strategies, he has suggested three steps of action all along the coast. These are: 

(i) strengthening the ecological foundations (bioshield) of sustainable human security; 

(ii) fostering sustainable livelihood security; and

(iii) putting in place a network of rural knowledge centres. 

  • Swaminathan ( 2005 b) has also described the principles and methodologies of mainstreaming disaster management into sustainable development.

The blog on Managing Extreme Natural Disasters in Coastal Areas (Part 4) by M S Swaminathanpertains to UPSC papers Gs 2 hunger and malnutrition, GS 3 Agriculture and Food security. Don’t forget to subscribe so that you never miss out on such important and interesting topics. Check out our previous blogs on various topics here.

Blog Post written by:
Anurag Trivedi
UPSC Mentor