Resilience and the “state” of know-how

Supriya Krishnan
8 min readOct 15, 2018

An overview of open data roadblocks in resilient development for India

In the Union Budget of 2018, investments in infrastructure received a strong thrust with the Hon. Finance Minister allocating USD 14.5 billion on infrastructure. A notably special allocation was made towards kick-starting a Coalition on Disaster Resilient Infrastructure for: “Developing international good practices, appropriate standards and regulatory mechanism for resilient infrastructure development”. This includes developing resilient economic infrastructure assets such as transport, telecommunication, power and water related infrastructure.

While the role of infrastructure for the growth of the economy has been established; this initiative for building a knowledge coalition for resilience is a significant push highlighting the importance of long term planning. In this article, I utilize information in the public domain to reflect on critical knowledge gaps that bring forth both the challenge and impending urgency of integrated resilience in India’s development.

Infrastructure and India

India is expected to host 20% of humanity by 2050. We will have over 60 new cities with a population of over one million each. This will naturally translate into massive investments in infrastructure assets such as metro lines, bridges, national highways, ports, etc. An Asian Development Bank report on Meeting Asia’s Infrastructure needs estimates that (at 2015 prices), India would need USD 4.4 trillion in infrastructure investment for the period between 2016–2030 to maintain its baseline growth. Now, this growth trajectory is evidently supported with centrally sponsored infrastructure initiatives such as the Bharatmala Pariyojana for highways, Sagarmala for ports and the Smart Cities Mission for urban renewal and retrofitting. This also means that for a country where more than 75% of the landmass is vulnerable to natural hazards; infrastructure assets will be proliferating on a bed of risks.

The consequence of not integrating resilience

Rapid pace of development has become an excuse for haphazard urbanization that damages the environment. The Chennai floods of 2015 (which is now becoming a recurring event), was cited as one of the most expensive disasters of that year globally. A lot of the losses were due to damage to structures built in erstwhile floodplains due to unregulated development. According to the Global Assessment Report (GAR), the expected annual losses in the built environment resulting from disasters are expected to rise dramatically by 39% by 2030. This is direct damage to buildings and infrastructure assets which are in addition to indirect, long-term socio-economic losses. Public infrastructure will claim a significant share of these losses. In the same GAR study, India is expected to look at a Probable Maximum Loss (PML) of USD 14 billion. This represents the “the maximum loss that could be expected, on average, within a given number of years” due to earthquakes, wind, storm surge and losses to capital stock, social expenditure, reserves, savings, etc.

The acknowledgment of wanting to be resilient is reflected in the business climate. The India Risk Survey compiled by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, presents the perceptions of business leaders, policymakers and experts regarding strategic, operational and safety risks to business establishments. This risk is especially high for the government that bears most of the economic impacts of consequences due to natural hazards.

It is not surprising to note that, out of the 12 risks on the list, the risk from Natural Hazards has consistently risen from rank 12 (2015) to rank 4 (2017) as the biggest threat to businesses in India.

The roadblock in integrating resilience

Investing in measures to mitigate risks has become akin to staring at a bottomless pit since the measurement of how resilient an asset should be is an issue (e.g. how do I determine the standard of road construction based on knowledge on rainfall and temperature projections? Why should I care even?). Frequencies of climate-related hazards rise gradually and only occasionally offer a glimpse of their wrath-causing potential. But the deterioration of the built environment has farther reaching consequences that can be seen in several instances like the chronic urban floods in Mumbai that impact GDP or the Bihar floods that have directly and indirectly displaced about a million people. In a roundtable on Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (2017), inconsistencies and low quality of data on hazard scenarios and lack of evolving development standards were highlighted as priority issues in resilience building. Together, they have the potential to pull back the growth trajectory of the country. “Response” oriented disaster management is unable to account for these consequences.

Resilience and knowledge

India has been taking the lead on measures to improve disaster management by being one of the first nations to propose a National Disaster Management Plan based on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR). SFDRR is a voluntary agreement adopted by UN Member nations with the objective of “substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses” (2015). While it recognizes its role and the opportunity to steer its development to lock in resilience, a glaring issue today is the understandable lack of comprehensive data on hazards and risks. Not knowing what kind of risk one is dealing with automatically hampers decision making for appropriate development of standards for that risk. Whether it is lack of knowledge that a metro line lies in the seismic zone (e.g. Delhi Metro stations located in seismic zone 4 and in floodplains of the River Yamuna) or a lack of awareness about projected losses to public assets (e.g. damage to transport assets constituted almost 50% of losses during the Bihar floods of 2008).

The current public record of disaster occurrences in India (as directed through the website of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is through the EM-DAT– an international disaster database maintained by CRED. Traditionally disaster-prone countries such as Japan, USA, Indonesia, Afghanistan; host web portals that present geospatial access to country-specific hazard data that a vast multi-hazard landscape like India lacks. While dependency on global disaster databases is acceptable, they may not sufficiently account for losses from medium or small scale impacts.

Currently hazard and vulnerability maps of India indicate earthquake zonation (updated until 2002), wind and cyclone hazard (updated until 1987) and flood hazard maps which have been developed by the Building Materials and Technology Promotion Council (BMTPC). While a physical copy of these maps are available for purchase; not much of this information is available on the state or district resolution or even as a digitally compatible version in the public domain. Bhuvan, India’s geospatial platform hosted by the Indian Space Research Organisation presents limited event data on inundation due to flooding. Some private entities are beginning to institutionalize their data collection techniques such as location-based geotagging in the event of a disaster to address a part of the knowledge scarcity for decision making during disasters.

Resilience and the state

In the federal system of India, planning and management of disasters is a ‘state’ subject. A broad overview of State Disaster Management websites for all states in India showed that Gujarat and Bihar were the only two states to have published a flood risk atlas at the level of the district. They utilise regional projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Indian Network for Climate Change Assessment (INCCA) reports for their interventions. As the primary stakeholders of losses, the government must realize the value of hazard and risk data as a public good which must be available for the average citizen. Lack of uninterrupted access to such fundamental data not only barricades a general understanding of the vulnerability of the population but also discourages independent research and contribution in this area. This lack of information also explains the tendency to plan for disaster response as opposed to disaster preparedness and mitigation.

  • Format and level of detail of plans: An overview of State Disaster Management Plans (SDMP) of 23 States in India shows that only 13 state documents enlist information on historical disaster losses. Moreover, less than 15 documents make a mention for risk assessments or recovery guidelines for critical infrastructure such as transport, telecommunication, power and other capital assets. This should raise a red flag as these infrastructures not only form the backbone of recovery in the event of a calamity, but also contribute to a substantial percentage of losses. Hence their destruction and inability to recover becomes a double tragedy as the economic stakes are high and critical services are lost when they are needed the most. Odisha was one of the first states with a comprehensive plan with action areas for all infrastructure sectors. In this case, a study by the Center for Policy Research, evaluating the Odisha State Action Plan for Climate Change, noted that the vulnerability analysis presented for the state is pertinent but, “is not linked together in a manner that can influence or inform recommendations”.

The State as the boundary: Political boundaries do not contain disasters. While states are known to cooperate fully with each other in the event of disaster response, the same cooperative approach does not guide the planning process. A NIPFP round table on Regulating standards for infrastructure safety in India highlighted the difficulty in basic infrastructure provisioning with varying levels of governance capacities. Effective mitigation and investment decisions to develop resilience will involve cooperation between a consortium of states that lie in the same hazard zone and must deal with similar issues to be able to facilitate integrated risk management. This means that infrastructure investments (for e.g. dams) made at the upstream of one state do not negatively impact the downstream of the neighboring state. This approach also aids a certain level of interoperability between states as the same set of frameworks will guide them and extra efforts need not be spent standardizing this information.

The issue of expertise and guidelines: At the recently concluded International Workshop on Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (IWDRI 2018) hosted by the Government of India, an expert at a state disaster management authority in a flood-prone state in India pointed that states lack of technological know-how to plan for resilient development. He quoted an example that the concerned construction departments simply did not have guidelines on know how to build a road that will withstand severe flooding. In practice, there is seldom a disaster risk expert in the project evaluation or approval committee.

Empowering local governance: Local governments are also most connected to ground conditions and have the most resources at hand when a disaster strikes. As a system of government that allocates development power to the local, this is a massive point of concern and opportunity. Roadblocks in appropriate decision making for development by the local government could be attributed to them being insufficiently informed about two things: 1) their vulnerabilities; and more importantly 2) their position in the state and national level resilience initiatives. This lack of knowledge impedes sufficient allocation of resources at the local level. Development financing is not well channelized for such specialized allocation to be made by local governments. This may involve decision-making and monitoring land use planning, laying local roads, water and sewage management, improving green cover, traffic management etc; all of which will contribute to the resilience of the environment and living conditions.

The urgency to act now

India is on the path of making its urbanization ‘smart’. Bringing massive development and resilience on the same path is an intimidating process with several stakeholders, changing political and economic landscapes and lastly not knowing what the impending risks are. While the gap in investments in infrastructure will be filled gradually, knowledge creation on risk assessment, infrastructure standards, recovery and reconstruction method and most importantly — ways of financing resilience requires impetus and attention. The National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change (NMSKCC) proposes to create a database of scientific climate trends for future decision making. It is worth examining the building blocks of initiatives such as the NMSKCC and the aforementioned coalition in being able to accelerate the state of know-how for long term resilience building. Resilience is no longer an option, but an imperative.

I would like to thank my colleagues at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy and National Disaster Management Authority for discussions on this article.