The Uttarakhand Floods: There is [still] no such thing as a natural disaster

Published in The Alternative here.

Nearly a decade ago, in December 2003, I remember listening to a BBC radio show in the aftermath of a massive earthquake in Iran, which had killed close to 30,000 people. The discussion centered on various religions’ interpretation of tragedies/disasters such as the one Iran had then witnessed, and the anchor interviewed Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist (there may have been others too) scholars on this topic. Talking points on the show ranged from the Almighty punishing society for its supposed infractions to disasters being a test of individuals’ patience and resilience in the face of extraordinarily trying circumstances. I also remember asking why God tested or punished people only in Third World countries like Iran and not, for instance, the Japanese, who, despite worse earthquakes managed to survive and thrive?
A few years later, as Hurricane Katrina wrecked unseen suffering on New Orleans, the situation became clearer still: the divide was as much within as it was between countries. The poor and the minorities were more likely to bear the brunt of disasters than their more privileged neighbours. Of course, Amartya Sen had reached the same conclusion in his study of the Bengal famine of the 1940s, arguing that naturally caused droughts led to full-fledged famines only under specific and unfavourable political economic circumstances. In other words, and as Neil Smith so provocatively put it in the context of Katrina, ‘there is no such thing as a natural disaster’. Anyone today, therefore, who uses phrases like ‘nature’s fury’ or ‘natural laws’ to describe—and thus, explain–the deaths and damage in Uttarakhand is being disingenuous at best.

Guest houses along the river

As Smith highlighted in his article, there are at least four aspects in the making of disasters that are together simultaneously natural and social. First of these, the causes, may actually be the most natural part of the tragedy. The recent floods were caused by what is commonly termed a ‘cloudburst’, that is, heavy and concentrated rainfall, usually more than 100mm in an hour, or even 20mm in a few minutes. The specific topography of course intensifies flooding, causing worse damage in steeper gradients. Still, even the causes are not entirely natural, and there is conclusive proof that human-induced climate change may be partly responsible for the increasing frequency of such intense and unanticipated weather events.

Second, and as crucial, is the vulnerability of populations to the disaster. Vulnerability refers to the degree to which an individual or social group is susceptible to the loss of life or livelihood faced with a specific adverse event. Typically vulnerability can be accentuated or attenuated through human action, including state policy. Deforestation during and after colonialism, the largely unplanned housing and commercial developments in the floodplain of the affected rivers in Uttarakhand, and the construction of massive hydroelectric projects contributed to the heightened regional vulnerability to the flash floods. In this, the actions of the construction-mining-real estate mafias in hill-states contribute significantly, and are offered political and bureaucratic protection in return for personal enrichment and to finance electoral campaigns. Still, those who lived by the rivers were more susceptible than those on higher ground, and now, people with greater stores of essentials or larger savings are likely to tide over disaster-induced scarcities with more resilience than others. Moreover, in such contexts, it is seen that politically better-networked villages receive aid before and in relatively higher quantum than more marginal areas, which in turn are left more vulnerable.

Flash floods first caused havoc in Upper Garhwal

The third aspect, preparedness, refers to the level of understanding of natural processes and simultaneously, pre-disaster planning in vulnerable zones. It is here that contemporary rural and urban development exists in a fuzzy zone, neither able and willing to develop or follow precise scientific approaches, nor learning from traditional knowledge systems. Around the world it has been seen that long time residents have a genuine understanding of natural risks and therefore develop ways to adapt and plan accordingly. It is then not an accident that older villages in the Himalayas are usually small and found on the ridges, and very rarely—if ever—in the valleys or close to rivers and drainage channels. Even the 1991 Uttarkhashi earthquake clearly revealed the efficacy of local construction in resisting the event, when compared to the more recent concrete and steel buildings. Of course, the latter technologies are easier to procure and comparatively cheaper but they do leave families at a greater risk of injury during earthquakes. Similarly, people move away from the older villages-on-the-ridge to towns in the valleys for economic opportunities or closer to the roads (themselves very often close to the rivers) to maximize the accessibility-induced increase in property values. The problem is, once again, that their risk in the event of a fifty or a hundred-year flood increases manifold, as we have just discovered in Uttarakhand. It is here too that the inefficiencies of the meteorological department and its (lack of) coordination with local agencies lead to a situation where even the latest technologies are utterly incapable of saving lives. This is the domain of disaster management proper, and despite much national brouhaha since the 2004 tsunami, in particular, little seems to have changed.

Finally, such inefficiencies are also part of post-disaster reconstruction. The 1996 book by journalist P. Sainath titled ‘Everyone Loves a Good Drought’ shows how, in some of the poorest districts of the country, droughts have spun an entire industry that thrives parasitically off the misfortunes of the most vulnerable people. This local/regional complex can be considered an Indian instantiation of what Naomi Klein called ‘disaster capitalism’, or the scramble to profit in the aftermath of natural and human-induced emergencies. One has heard stories of hoteliers who become contractors overnight and organize fictitious ‘relief camps’ with the primary aim of siphoning funds to be distributed amongst the previously alluded to grey network. This work is even simpler during emergencies when regular oversights are often waived on account of the disaster constituting what Georgio Agamben called a ‘state of exception’. In this context, the cynicism of the public, anticipating corruption in relief activities, is completely justified and in fact morally less compromised than the national leader asking common citizen to donate their hard-earned money for ‘relief’, knowing fully well what this actually translates to on the ground.

In sum, adverse events may be caused by complex intersections of the natural and social worlds, but vulnerability to, preparedness for, and post-facto reconstruction are social and political domains. Contrary to the way many understand such tragedies, the Uttarakhand floods show once again that there (still) is no such thing as a natural disaster.

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