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By Anand Kumar

At a time when India is grappling with a worldwide pandemic, there are other natural disasters which have been bothering it. Cyclone Amphan ripped through Eastern India last month, killing at least 86 people in West Bengal, destroying thousands of homes and uprooting innumerable trees. Authorities are still struggling to bring back normalcy, especially because the coronavirus pandemic is hampering its work too.

Covid-19 is not only a health emergency but it has further multiplied the vulnerability of people who are at risk of displacement by storms, floods and other climate disasters.

Amphan was 2020’s first tropical cyclone in India, where high winds and lashing rain threatened the region’s most vulnerable populations. Early preparation, along with a weakening of the cyclone as it made landfall, appears to have mitigated Amphan’s initial impact. Recent advances in weather forecasting and early warning systems have been instrumental in saving many lives.

The country has strengthened early warning systems, built awareness among communities and civic authorities, constructed cyclone shelters, strengthened buildings for addressing the cyclones. It is too early to tell the full impact of Cyclone Amphan, but early preparedness likely mitigated the human and physical toll.

However, India needs to draw more on a strong information technology sector. Increased availability of remote sensing coupled with Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology and access to the digital world have enormous scope to provide real-time information to save lives and jobs in the event of a disaster.

Technology-enabled early warning systems have evolved to help manage disaster risks effectively. Investing in early warning systems has huge benefits –it saves lives and assets. We have been witnessing these types of cyclones since decades and have realized that investing in early warning systems and preparedness pays off. By planning for both climate and health risks, we can save lives and strengthen our economies.

India has developed good cyclone early warning systems and evacuation plans for people living along the coast. However, the intensity of the cyclones seems to be increasing due to climate change and therefore India needs to enhance its preparation for similar events in the future. During a disaster, displaced people need food, shelter, security, and healthcare. However, post the disaster, they also need support to rebuild their houses and restart their livelihoods. For this, there is a need for long-term support to build climate resilience.

Robust early warning systems and mechanisms to evacuate people before disasters like cyclones and floods hit only helps in saving lives, and not in protecting property and people’s livelihoods, which takes months and years to recover. The government must enhance adaptive measures of retrofitting public infrastructure like schools, hospitals, roads, and houses to make them disaster-proof, and strengthen local communities by providing various livelihood options and tools for climate-resilient agriculture. The vulnerable people, particularly women, children, disabled, and older people, are most affected by disasters and need to be protected with additional support such as safe housing and food security.

The first measure to deal with such disasters is to strengthen healthcare facilities. Healthcare facilities are at the front line during such disasters. It is, therefore, essential to ensure that they can withstand climate risks, and have access to essential services such as energy, water, and sanitation, including during extreme weather events.

The second important step is to strengthen data and information. In order to manage multiple risks, effective sharing of data, scientific information and appropriate skills sets and capacities to understand risks and act upon them on a timely basis is very important. Information must not only be shared between government agencies, but it must reach communities also. The government must develop concise and clear “early warning” communication messages that relate to evacuation and other response from the natural disaster, keeping in mind the pandemic restrictions.

The third and last measure is to strengthen early warning systems. While this technology is already being used during natural disasters, there is a need to apply the same technology to disease and pandemic outbreaks, especially in relief and recovery operations.

The recent COVID-19 crisis and Cyclone Amphan have shown us that we can no longer think of pandemic preparedness or disaster preparedness in a silo. We need to address both and with both, there is a common lesson -strengthening by investing in early warning systems (EWS) and preparedness pays off. By planning for both climate and health risks, we can save lives, livelihoods and strengthen our economies.

Anand Kumar is Associate Director, Environment and Climate Change at IPE Global, an international development consulting firm.

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