Are the Citizens Adequately Prepared for a Natural Disaster in Kolkata?

As cyclone Fani was battering the coasts of Odisha recently, gusty winds and rains hit Kolkata leading to waterlogging and traffic congestion in several areas. The monsoons are soon going to arrive and if you are a resident of the city of joy, you know what it means for any natural disaster in Kolkata.

Even 8mm of rainfall over an hour is enough to flood the city and create serious issues of water-logging affecting day-to-day life in the city. Whether in your office cafeteria or in public transport, discussions bemoaning the inadequate civic infrastructure of the city will inevitably reach you.

The City of Storms

The erstwhile capital of British India with its dated infrastructural capabilities was simply not geared to counter even a calamity of moderate risk let alone a devastating natural calamity. (However, the authorities have taken a proactive approach to upgrading the response structure for any disaster in Kolkata.)

For example, the 2009 cyclone named Aila had only hit the city with a moderate force of 80 kilometres per hour but it managed to uproot thousands of trees, caused widespread blackouts in the city—some ranging for days, and even killed a total of 21 people.

In fact, Kolkata is no stranger to these mishaps as it gets seasonal lashes of Nor’westers or the Kalbaishakhi, which is a local rainfall and thunder-storm.

In 2013, the city faced its fiercest Nor’wester in a decade that ripped through the city at 116 km an hour causing heavy damage to lives and properties.

In terms of damages, Kolkata has been the worst-hit in 2018 when a Nor’wester swept across destroying 1050 houses and old buildings and disrupting transportation network — road, metro railway, train and flight services. Nearly 256 trees were uprooted while 225 electric posts were damaged across the city, disrupting wide-scale power supply.

Statistics Not in Favour

A few years back, a report, Mind the Risk: A global ranking of cities under threat from natural disasters assessed 616 cities around the world for their vulnerability to five natural disasters namely, storm, storm surge, tsunami, river flood, and earthquake. Out of the top 10 disaster-prone cities in the world, Kolkata got the seventh spot in the list.

The Eastern metropolis and its 17.9 million people stand the risk of facing all the five types of natural disasters that they assessed risk for. The overall assessment found river flooding to be the most major threat as it has the potential to affect 379 million people globally. In this regard, Kolkata is in a precarious position owing to its geography as a major flood-exposed urban area in the world because of the proximity to the Sunderbans, the world’s largest delta, and the Bay of Bengal. This threat stands to affect almost 10.5 million people in the city.

natural disaster in kolkata

Kolkata really hasn’t got it easy. Plus, the dated sewer system of the city adds to its peril too as the 140-years-old drainage and sewer system does not even cover the whole city but is laid in approximately 50% of the metropolis only. Only about 5% of the 180 km sewer tracks in the city are effectively de-silted. The rest remain clogged and therefore, of little use in the event of stormwater drainage. Projects to overhaul and de-silt the drainage have not been effective till date and experts are of the opinion that the cost would be prohibitively high in any case. North Kolkata with its share of the oldest pipelines and proximity to Ganga, remains the most susceptible to inundation.

What is the Preparedness Status?

With a sizeable population in residence, the West Bengal Disaster Management Authority should be in combat-ready mode at all times. However, the ground reality was quite poor even a few years back.

In the year 2013, a report prepared by the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General for the state of West Bengal found glaring issues in the management and preparedness of disaster control. The report underlined both financial issues and operational shortcomings in the running of the state-run Disaster Management Authority. The issues range from underutilisation of funds, non-distribution of relief material, non-working emergency operation centres, to a serious lack of manpower.

However, the government has stepped up its initiatives to some extent. The West Bengal Disaster Management Authority has facilitated the construction of food shelters and relief godowns in several districts to tackle calamities. In 2018, the government announced the development of an SMS-based early warning system that would alert people about impending disasters.

The authorities have implemented a proactive approach to manage disasters in Kolkata through clear structures and programs detailing actions in:

  • Pre-disaster Phase
  • Disaster/ Impact Phase
  • Post-disaster Phase

Besides, the authority has also created a disaster response structure with a set of agencies and a framework of operations to be undertaken at all levels like district, sub-divisions, blocks, etc. including community and voluntary agencies.

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation in association with the Asian Development Bank has also launched the country’s first comprehensive city-wide early warning system called the Flood Forecasting and Early Warning System or FFEWS for Kolkata. With the help of strategically positioned sensors, the system will enable much better disaster preparedness.

Fortunately, awareness among the higher authorities and many government initiatives are finally changing the sorry state of affairs. For a region prone to natural disasters due to a considerable coastal population susceptible to cyclones and floods, the wheels are turning towards effective disaster avoidance.

What Can We Do to Limit the Risk and Damage?

While a natural disaster in Kolkata is not entirely in our control, we can take steps to reduce the risk and minimize the damage. In fact, a lot is in our hands.

According to environmentalists, Kolkata is equipped with natural defences — the wetlands to the east, the Ganges to the west, all emptying into the mangrove-rich delta region of the Sundarbans and out to the Bay of Bengal. The city’s many lakes and creeks are naturally capable of containing the excess rainwater.

Ironically, we are stripping the city of its natural defences with:

Rampant plastic use – Being non-biodegradable, plastic waste is one of the biggest enemies of the city’s drainage system and infrastructure. But it doesn’t have to be this way because, with a little effort on our part, we can easily reduce the use of plastic items in our day to day life. Here are some tips.

Destruction of greenery – Mindless felling of trees is taking a heavy toll on Kolkata’s ecosystem and the general climate. Not only this needs to stop, but we must also create more green spaces. Plus, because the city is geographically prone to thunderstorms which uproot hundreds of trees every year, we need to improve our reforestation strategy.

Wetlands depletion – While the government has taken initiatives to put a stop to the encroachment and destruction of East Kolkata Wetlands, we need more sustainable measures to preserve it.

When it comes to reducing casualties and damage to infrastructure, the civic bodies in the city need to implement stronger assessment and mitigation policies against old and unsafe buildings, which are in perpetual danger of collapse.

Undertaking the long but important process of mapping hazards, vulnerability, and modelling risk is also a much-needed step towards strengthening the infrastructure to cope with any natural disaster in Kolkata.

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