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Kashmir’s lockdown increases disaster risk

JessicaField19 August 2019

On 5 August 2019, the Government of India unilaterally reorganised Jammu and Kashmir state into two Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh – and revoked Article 370, which contained protected privileges for the disputed territory. Tens of thousands of soldiers have been deployed to the region, tens of thousands of tourists and workers have fled

Since 4 August, Kashmir Valley has been on a communications blackout and curfew, which poses serious disaster risks for the population as well as everyday challenges, fear and fury.

Kashmir Valley and Ladakh are frequently lauded as two of the most beautiful parts of South Asia. The Valley is bounded by the Himalayan mountain range and has the nickname “paradise on earth”; Ladakh is high up in the desert mountains and often called “Little Tibet,” or the “Roof of the World”.[i] Their location and climates, however, make them incredibly hazard-exposed.[ii] Most of the Kashmir region falls under a seismic zone V (the highest earthquake risk category), and the entire erstwhile state is prone to a variety of hazards. During winter, intense snowfall can cut off large parts of the region for months. Avalanches and landslides are commonplace. From July to September, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are at particular risk of flooding – Kashmir from heavy rains, Ladakh from cloud bursts and Glacial Lake Outburst Floods. These risks are often exacerbated by poor city planning and illegal developments in flood plains.

Dal Lake, Srinagar. Photo: J. Field

As a result of a number of recent disasters,[iii] local government officials across Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh have been attempting to improve their Disaster Management planning – both in terms of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and emergency response. Ladakh began developing its own District Disaster Management Plan after severe floods in 2010 and since 2017 has been working to update it. Reacting to the devastating 2014 floods in Kashmir, the district administration moved to develop its own Disaster Management Plan shortly after.

These Disaster Management Plans are still under development and have a long way to go before they effectively incorporate inclusive and vulnerability-responsive DRR and plan for a more effective emergency response. The Government of India’s latest moves in the region have potentially pushed their development back several paces, and the the total security lockdown of Kashmir may significantly increase disaster risks for an already vulnerable population.

As Ilan Kelman and I have argued elsewhere, some of the weaknesses in effective emergency planning have long existed as a result of the protracted security environment in Kashmir and Ladakh, where hazard-centred and military-led responses have too often been prioritised over longer-term DRR or more inclusive emergency planning.

Since 5th August 2019, these challenges have multiplied.

In this current moment, residents of Kashmir are experiencing lockdown and a widespread communications blackout. For 12 days, mobile phones, landlines and internet services were entirely cut (with sporadic access only coming to some areas in recent days). A strict curfew has been imposed, and the Valley’s political leaders have been put under house arrest. People have not been able to access medical treatment, withdraw cash, or travel out of the area. In Ladakh, Kargil too has faced lockdown. These restrictions have serious disaster risk implications.

Firstly, effective disaster management and emergency responses require active and accessible communication: i.e. operational early warning systems, communication infrastructure that connects residents to each other as well as their government, and access to information (reports suggest that some Kashmiris didn’t know why they were under lockdown several days after the constitutional change, let alone what they should do in a hazard scenario). Worryingly, communication blackouts are not tools deployed in extraordinary circumstances in Kashmir – they are a regular occurrence, with 54 internet shutdowns in 2019 alone.

Effective disaster management and emergency responses also require mobility and access to healthcare services: i.e. the possibility to visit hospitals when required (and for those hospitals to be stocked with sufficient supplies); the possibility to evacuate to a safer location in the event of a hazard; the ability to visit and check on vulnerable family members, or get personal supplies from stores.

Importantly, effective disaster management and emergency responses require trust. You need responsible and accountable individuals in charge of planning, monitoring and emergency responses (not locked up under house arrest in Kashmir, or feigning ‘peaceful’ stability from Delhi). The Government of India should recall its record of centre-led disaster relief in the Valley is not such a good one. Its failure to effectively respond, compensate and rehabilitate survivors of the 2014 floods in Jammu and Kashmir fomented a sense of disaffection that fed into the 2016 violence in the Valley.[iv]

Beyond the immediate challenges, in the medium term the existing Disaster Management Plans currently held by Srinagar and Leh administrations may well have to be completely redrawn, as protocols for coordination and resources will likely be redundant now the state has been broken into two Union Territories. These drastic governance changes were literally brought in overnight without warning, preventing any Disaster Management transition. All of this has occurred at a time of year when flood risks are typically high.

For residents in Kashmir and Kargil, who are parlty or wholly cut off from the outside world and held under a military curfew, the basic needs of the present are the most urgent. But the lockdown is significantly increasing their vulnerability to hazards, too. The government needs to seriously consider their responsibility in this regard as they have created this situation. Moreover, effective disaster risk reduction and emergency response plans are highly sensitive to the surrounding context and do not simply materialise when a hazard strikes.

Tuturk in Nubra Valley, Ladakh. Photo: J. Field

Dr Jessica Field is an Associate Professor of International Affairs at O.P. Jindal Global University, India, and a Research Associate at IRDR, UCL. Her research interests are in the history and politcs of humanitarianism and disaster management.
Jessica has been a Researcher/Co-Investigator on two of IRDR’s recent research projects: Increasing Resilience to Environmental Hazards in Border Conflict Zones, and Rohingya Journeys of Violence and Resilience in Bangladesh and its Neighbours. On these projects, Jessica has led field research in Ladakh, Hyderabad and Calcutta, undertaking interviews with crisis-affected communities and archival research on the wider context of disasters and displacements.

Notes

[i] J. H. Fewkes, Trade and Contemporary Society Along the Silk Road: An entho-history of Ladakh, London: Routledge, 2009, p.19.

[ii] Kshitij Gupta, ‘Long Term Disaster Recovery in Kashmir’, in Long Term Disaster Recovery in Kashmir, Southasiadisasters.net, AIDMI, Issue no. 163, (October 2017): 13-14; Mihir R. Bhatt, ‘Risks in High Altitudes: How to Think About Action?’ in Community Managed Disaster Risk Reduction in High Altitude Areas,Southasiadisasters.net, AIDMI, Issue no. 85, (June 2012): 3-4.

[iii] On 6 August 2010, Ladakh experienced a cloudburst and severe flooding, which killed over 200 people and devastated Leh city and nearby villages. In September 2014, the wider Kashmir region in both Pakistan and India saw the worst floods it had experienced in decades, killing over 400 and displacing almost a million. In August last year, flash floods caused serious damage across Jammu and Kashmir.

[iv] F. Espada, ‘On Authority and Trust: A reflection on the effectiveness of disaster management in Bangladesh, India and Nepal’, in ed. Espada, F. (London: Save the Children & HCRI, 2016): 123-155. Available: http://humanitarianeffectivenessproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/South-Asia_Fernando_Espada_HAT.pdf

The 2019 Global Assessment Report (GAR)

RebekahYore31 May 2019

Post written by Prof. David Alexander 

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction was born out of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, 1990-2000. On 1st May 2019 it was renamed the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. UNDRR remains a relatively small unit of the United Nations, but it has a truly world-wide reach. DRR is thus now truly mainstreamed at the global level.

UNDRR has a recurrent initiative for assessing the state of disaster preparedness around the world, and this results in a document, the Global Assessment Report(GAR), which is issued biennially to coincide with the UN’s Global Platform on DRR. The 2019 report is accompanied by an executive summary called GAR Distilled. The GAR proper consists of 15 chapters in four sections: introductory, the Sendai Framework (SFDRR), its implementation (and interaction with sustainable development), and managing risk nationally and locally. The document is decanted from many different studies, some of which have been commissioned specially for it. These may be published separately in an academic journal. An example of this for the 2013 GAR can be found in Di Mauro (2014). This edition of the GAR is the first to report on the implementation of the Sendai Framework for DRR.

The 2019 GAR starts with a quotation from UN Secretary General António Guterres, who observes that in the modern world global challenges are more and more integrated and the responses are more and more fragmented. This is a powerful argument for joining forces and using a common agreed policy at the world-wide scale.

The GAR uses the ‘pressure-and-release’ model of Wisner et al, (2004) in an adapted form, consisting of: context, stressors, thresholds (nowadays known as ‘tipping points’ and impacts (which it terms ‘systemic failure’). One great lesson that the modern world teaches us is that changes that we thought were gradual can be suddenly overwhelming. Perhaps we are unaware when the ‘tipping points’ are passed, and that is a dangerous situation to be in.

The GAR urges that international agreements (the Sendai Framework, the Sustainable Development Agenda, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the New Urban Agenda) be viewed collectively through the lens of systemic risk. It is clear that the world is still struggling to achieve the transition from a focus on responding to disaster impacts to one on reducing the risks associated with future impacts. The verdict on major risk is a resounding “sooner than expected”, which, of course, reduces the time available to prepare. Initiatives need to coalesce around “risk informed sustainable development”.

I have argued elsewhere (Alexander 2017) that the number of times the word ‘should’ is used in an official document is an inverse indicator of its utility. The road to the nether regions is paved with things we should do (but for one reason or another have not done), and so a high ‘should ratio’ (the number of “shoulds” per page) is a proxy indicator for an ineffective instrument. The ‘should ratios’ of the GAR and GAR Distilled are 0.26 and 0.32, both below the alarm-signal threshold of 0.40. However, parts of the GAR bristle with “shoulds”. Moreover, there are only two mentions of ‘rights’ and none of ‘human rights’. The latter are very important to disaster risk reduction because they constrain or determine what can be done in the way of preparedness, action and reaction. UNISDR had a tendency to shy away from human rights issues, perhaps because it needed to remain engaged with countries that have a poor record in this respect.

The section of the GAR on ‘challenges’ is welcome, as the challenges are indeed legion. However, the two short paragraphs devoted to political challenges are extremely weak. It could be argued that political decision making is the greatest barrier of all to successful disaster risk reduction. We live in a world in which Terry Cannon’s ‘cure to damage ratio’ is paramount. Globally, about a thousand times as much is spent on hydrocarbon exploration and extraction than on the mitigation of the climate change that results from burning fossil fuels (Mechler et al. 2019). Unofficial voices have suggested that the ‘cure to damage ratio’ for natural hazards is 1:43. In any case, there is no doubt that much more is spent on making the problem worse than on solving it. What is needed is a brutally honest assessment of why this is the case.

Notably, the GAR has finally come around to the view that we all bear the burden of reducing disaster risk. In putting individuals at the centre of a diagram of actions we see people either crushed between the rock of hazards and the hard place of risk-informed sustainable development or as protagonists in combatting the former with the latter. The GAR notes that “we all live in communities”. No doubt we do, but the DRR community needs to do more to define what a community is, how it functions and whether it is really the right vehicle for solving our problems.

One of the most intransigent problems with the predecessor of the Sendai Framework, Hyogo Framework for Action, 2005-2015, was its resolute reliance on a ‘top-down’ approach. Studies showed that the HFA had had little impact at the local level (GNCSODR 2015). The Sendai Framework and all the United Nations impedimenta that goes with it tend to perpetuate this issue, despite the launch in 2010 of the UN Safe Cities programme (about 1% of towns and cities have signed up for it). Consequently, the greatest present-day challenge is to achieve change from the local level against rigid power structures and massive vested interests at the national and globalised levels. For the sake of survival, it must be done. The GAR helps, and no one would deny that a coordinated world-wide approach is needed, but there is a growing feeling that progress will never be rapid enough until there is a fundamental reorientation.

Further Reading

The full and abbreviated Global Assessment Report 2019 can both be freely downloaded from https://gar.unisdr.org

Alexander, D.E. 2017. The ‘should ratio’. Disaster Planning and Emergency Management, 18 July 2017.

http://emergency-planning.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-should-ratio.html

Di Mauro, M. (ed.) 2014. Global probabilistic assessment of risk from natural hazards for the Global Assessment Report 2013 (GAR13). International Journal for Disaster Risk Reduction10(B): 403-502.

GNCSODR 2015. Views From the Frontline: Beyond 2015. Recommendations for a Post-2015 Disaster Risk Reduction Framework to Strengthen the Resilience of Communities to All Hazards. Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, Teddington, UK, 12 pp.

Mechler, R., L.M. Bouwer, T. Schinko, S. Surminski and J-A. Linnerooth-Bayer (eds) 2019. Loss and Damagefrom Climate Change: Concepts, Methods and Policy Options. Springer Open, Cham, Switzerland, 557 pp.

UNISDR 2005. Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 22 pp.

UNISDR 2015. Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 25 pp.

UNDRR 2019a. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, 2019. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Geneva, 472 pp.

UNDRR 2019b. GAR Distilled. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Geneva, 26 pp.

Wisner, B., P. Blaikie, T. Cannon and I. Davis and 2004. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters(2nd edition). Routledge, London, 496 pp.