Science for disaster management: NDMA is reaching out to the scientific community and working towards a futuristic agenda

30/Aug/2019 PK Mishra; Times of India

In an increasingly interconnected world, disaster and emergency risks are becoming more complex and intractable. Therefore, it is of vital importance that we optimise the application of scientific and technological capabilities to understand, reduce and manage disaster and emergency risks.
It is indeed commendable that National Disaster Management Authority is reaching out to the scientific community and working towards a futuristic agenda for disaster risk management in the country. Over the last 20 years, science and technology have brought a deeper understanding of how disaster risks are created and how they can be managed.
This is evident in the huge improvements we have made in forecasting extreme climate and weather events, our improved understanding of earthquakes and landslides, as well as our ability to model risks. With robust information on hazard patterns, exposure data on people, capital assets and economic activity, and much greater understanding of fragility or vulnerability of people, assets and systems, it is now possible to not only forecast disaster events, but also anticipate their impacts with a high level of confidence even before setting foot on a disaster site.
These promising developments notwithstanding, at the systemic level, there are two principal challenges worth highlighting.

First, the time lag between the availability of scientific and technological capability and its on-the-ground application. For example, mobile computing has been around for more than a decade, yet few post-disaster damage assessments make full use of the technology to come up with quick, rigorous and geo-referenced assessments.
Similarly, we hear about development of products and technologies emanating from our defence establishment that may be useful in disaster response, but their uptake by the practitioners remains uneven.
The second challenge is on the scientific development side. How do we ensure that research is focussed on developing methodologies and tools that respond to real-world challenges and facilitate the shift from disaster management to disaster risk management? At the same time, how do we ensure that we do not stifle innovation and leave enough room for out-of-the-box exploration to understand different phenomena?
In India we have pursued the application of science and technology for disaster risk management with a sense of purpose and urgency. Our national system of science has also continually evolved over the years to meet the needs of disaster risk management professionals.
For example, some years ago, we brought together a number of scientific disciplines under the umbrella of ministry of earth sciences. Similarly, we have systematically pursued the application of space-based technologies for disaster risk management.
We now have to look at the next generation of our scientific efforts to address disaster risk management challenges. The next generation of scientific efforts need to be guided by the following three principles:

A sharper definition of disaster risk management problems to galvanise scientific efforts that lead to progress. The practice of disaster risk management has matured in the country and now it should be possible to articulate specific requirements from the scientific community.
While promoting the application of science for disaster risk management at the local level, we should search for scalable, affordable and sustainable solutions. In most parts of the country and indeed the world, disaster risks are building up at an alarming rate. Our ambition must match the scale of the problem.
Multi-disciplinary approach. The notion of multi-disciplinary approach to disaster risk management is not new. However, it is mostly confined to working across disciplines that study different hazards. For example, this may include seismologists interacting with landslide experts, flash flood experts and meteorologists. We need to enlarge the scope of multi-disciplinary work. We need to study the interaction between hazards, current and future exposure (population, property and economic activity), and vulnerability. This will require multi-disciplinary effort that will push us beyond our comfort zones.
Nevertheless, we need to guard ourselves against certain pitfalls. While over the last few years there is a lot of enthusiasm for application of big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence for disaster risk management, we must recognise that these technologies are not a substitute for a deeper understanding of social and economic processes that make our society vulnerable.
These are also not a substitute for the fundamental principles of good risk governance characterised by a responsive government and a risk-aware community. The new methods and tools should supplement and not supplant the time tested practices of good disaster risk management.
In a few weeks from now, with UK and other partners, India will be launching a global Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure which would prove to be a key milestone towards further strengthening our collaboration.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.