Paper presented in
Seventh Biennial Conference
Indian Society for Ecological Economics
Global Change, Ecosystems,
December 4-8, 2013
Need of a paradigm shift in disaster management approach: A case study from
Department of Environmental Science, Vivekananda College, Thakurpukur, Kolkata – 700063
Disaster management in recent years experienced a paradigm shift from the disaster response to
disaster preparedness approach. Assessment of sustainability in this aspect became contextual
especially for slow onset disasters, those makes a region more vulnerable promoting an event to
become disaster. The coastal zones seek maximum attention of being disaster prone especially
out of its vulnerability to global warming and climate change related disasters. Fallout of sea
level rise, cyclonic surges and embankment failures, land loss due to erosion, salinisation of soil
and water etc. are discussed and being addressed. On the other hand, slow degradation of soil
fertility (due to causes other than salinisation), ionic imbalance in groundwater, non-sustainable
shifting of professional activities, infrastructural ill-development and disaster perceptions of
inhabitants jeopardizing the management efforts are overlooked in most of the cases.
This present study unearths some of these factors for a coastal area. Sagar, Mousuni and
Ghoramana - three islands at the western boundary of the Sundarban were chosen as study area.
The Sagar island being the largest among them shares better infrastructural facilities and holds a
population of nearly 2.12 lac (Census, 2011), whereas, the population density is maximum at
Mousuni, which is not even having electricity in the island. Such socio-economic and
infrastructural discrepancies help in universality revalidation of the results. Soil and water
quality assessment reveals not salinity but, imbalance of other factors are predominant in
pockets, leading to lower productivity. On the other hand, lack of disaster perceptions, warning
system and infrastructural facilities are found weakening the adaptive capacity of the region.
Even the existing disaster management facilities are not being spread among people for proper
It seems that the disaster management system is existing, but with improper orientation, which
frequently leads under-preparedness.
Disaster as a field of study is believed to be in practice since 1917 when Samuel Henry Prince
incepted the idea of disaster sociology in his dissertation of on Canada’s worst catastrophe – the
1917 Halifax explosion (de Guzman, 2003). In its development through almost a hundred years it
has got several different ideas to be defined as ‘a serious disruption of the functioning of society,
causing widespread human, material or environmental losses which exceed the ability of the
affected society to cope using its own resources’ (DHA/IDNDR, 1992). World Health
Organization (1995) looked upon it as, deterioration of health and health services on a scale
sufficient to warrant an extraordinary response from outside the affected community or area.
More recently, IPCC defines disaster as ‘severe alterations in the normal functioning of a
community or a society due to hazardous physical events interacting with vulnerable social
conditions, leading to widespread adverse human, material, economic, or environmental effects
that require immediate emergency response to satisfy critical human needs and that may require
external support for recovery (IPCC, 2012). This has given the concept of disaster management a
new dimension that focuses more on overall societal development leading to preparedness. A
healthy society is less vulnerable and can fight back any consequence better.
When Disasters strike an unprepared community, the damage can be incredible. But ironically
with no sense of immediate need Community Preparedness is rarely a priority (Anonymous,
2011). Even the people sometimes do not get themselves prepared for the odds, as they do not
perceive the need of it. It has already been established while the hazardous events cannot be
averted, the consequences may be minimized. Hence, the disaster is averted. The working
principle of Disaster preparedness is to minimizes the adverse effects of a hazard through
effective precautionary actions, rehabilitation and recovery to ensure the timely, appropriate and
effective organization and delivery of relief and assistance following a disaster (Kent, 1994)
Human societies have the capacity to recognize the risks and potential causes of disasters and
also the appropriate interventions to control or manage them as well. It is the society – that needs
to recognize the importance of community action such as capacity and capability building,
including planning for the response to potential disasters, managing and mitigating their effects
(de Guzman, 2003). Interest is growing in supporting vulnerable people and communities to
adapt to the impacts of a changing environment. There is a general assumption that there are
close links between development and adaptation. But, in reality, the impacts, those development
interventions have on adaptive capacity at the local level remains limited (Jones et al. 2010). In
most of the cases, either a lack of perception among the people regarding potential risk or a lack
of coordination between the society and the management authority jeopardize the process. The
disaster management initiatives of the Government of India have focused on disaster
preparedness primarily on the institutional level where preparedness in dealt with arrangement of
rapid and effective relief and rehabilitation operation. However, it also feels the need of
community based capacity building at village level for disaster mitigation and to make it a day to
day affaire. Even the disaster management has been introduced under social science study at
school levels having a goal of grass-root penetration (NDMD, GOI, 2004).
This present study was designed to unearth the gaps lying over the disaster prone regions, where
most of these preparedness and mitigation strategies seems to have failed over years. The three
islands under study, share the similar environmental setup and consequent disaster threats while
enjoying different extent of infrastructure facilities. Ghoramara is a vanishing island with more
than 50% of its land already eroded out since 1969 (Jana et al., 2012), while Mousuni is facing
the threats of erosion at its southern tip (WWF, 2010). In contrary to these two, Sagar island
covering an area 10 times of Mousuni and 50 times of Ghoramara, is having both erosion and
accretion at places. The island is economically more stable and enjoys better infrastructural
facilities, like electricity, black topped road network, community health centre, higher education
institutes etc. The annual gathering at Gangasagar Mela strengthens its economic backbone
further. Such variability among islands enables the researcher to have a comprehensive idea
regarding the overall disaster management set up.
Sundarbans has been identified as one of the vulnerable areas in the climate change context due
to its ecological fragility (Jagtap, 2007; Erwin, 2009). Sagar and adjacent islands of Western
Sundarbans host high rate of inhabitation and least mangrove protection. The pathways of major
cyclonic events further add up to its vulnerability. Considering these factors the area was chosen
to be an ideal study area for the present study.
Although, the infrastructural facilities leading to better resilience and establishment of protective
measures and warning system for averting the disastrous consequences of any event are assessed
for disaster preparedness, but this particular study focused on the societal linkages. Household
level survey and simultaneous assessment of environmental quality was conducted tracing out
the answers of the following issues:
i. Whether the proposed and set preparedness reaches the stakeholders or not?
ii. Whether the people are ready to accept the set preparedness options or not?
iii. What makes some inhabitants evasive of using the stated guidelines?
iv. Is there any environmental factor remains unnoticed, which otherwise leads to
The survey was conducted using a pretested questionnaire for one to one interview. Caution was
taken to cover respondents from all the age groups, sex and casts. A total of 27 villages (Mouzas)
in the study area were covered that includes all the mouzas of Mousuni and Ghramara island and
52% mouzas of Sagar island. However, at each of the mouzas 12 to 22 households were chosen
randomly, that accounts to a total sample size of 338 households representing a population size
of 1657, as in case of disaster management or preparedness individual variations are not
expected among family members and more as the questionnaire was so framed.
Simultaneous with the survey, samples of soil and groundwater were collected and analysed
following the standard methodologies for the essential qualities, those affect the systems
resilience. The soil sampling was done from different locations selected randomly within the
study area covering all mouzas under study. Each of the samples are composite sample for the
field of sampling. A total of 90 samples were collected from Sagar, all of which were analysed
from pH and salinity and 59 among those were subjected to additional parameters like organic
Carbon, Organic matters and NPK. 4 samples from Ghoramara and 17 samples from Mousuni
were also analysed for all the parameters.
Ground water quality was assessed for 48 tubewells at Sagar island, 3 tube wells at Ghoramara
and 6 tube wells at Maousuni island.
All the parameter concerned were analysed on site following the standard methodologies
Results and Discussions:
Sagar, being the largest island of Sundarban island system has been a centre of attraction for the
climate scientists for its vulnerability specifically to the cyclonic surges and sea level rise.
Coastal erosion, prolonged inundation and soil salinisation have been discussed vividly in
different literatures (Hazra et al., 2002; Ghosh et al., 2003; Jayappa et al., 2006; Gopinath, 2010).
Strengthening of embankment, shore protections with mangrove plantations, road network
development and other measures have been tried to reduce the vulnerability of the region of
enhance the resilience. Very recent development includes electricity connections from the main
land and construction of a few cyclone or flood shelters in the island. However, both Mousuni
and Ghoramara islands are devoid of these infrastructural developments. While the former one is
having two solar power stations and two under construction flood houses, Ghoramara has
nothing (Table 1).
The road connectivity and availability of health care facilities are also much better at the Sagar
island followed by Mousuni and Ghoramara. While 84.8% households of Sagar is having proper
road connections including 11.8% blacktopped 1.9% RCC and 71.1% brick roads, on the other
hand none of the other islands are having any black topped or RCC roads. However, the Mousuni
and Ghoramara is having 86.8% and 90.9% brick road connectivity to its households (Table 1).
Very recently, a major portion of these brick roads are found be reconstructed as RCC roads in
Mousuni and Sagar island.
The major lacunae in disaster preparedness as was found during this study is lack of proper
warning system, which plays cornerstone in most of the disaster management plans. Only 51%
people at Sagar , 9.45% at Mousuni and 4.55% at Ghoramara are having access to local warning
spread by the police station.
Table 1: Infrastructure available for disaster preparedness
Road Condition (%) Health Care Warning Electricity
Shelter (all under
822 14.6 11.8 1.9 71.1 15.2 √ √ √ X 51.3 √ √ 4
919 10.3 X X 86.8 13.2 X √ √ X 9.45 X √ 2
- 0.8 X X 90.9 9.1 X X √ X 4.55 X X 0
[ # Considering the estimated land area in 2010 as per Jana et.al, 2012; * Source: Census of India Report(PCA), GOI 2011]
Consideration of management activities for reducing physical vulnerability of the island systems
shows some positive trends and optimistic condition. But, this particular study has revealed a few
unique societal responses which do not supplement the disaster preparedness. The disaster
perception varied widely from that was expected. With our surprise, less than 1% respondents of
Sagar island and none of the respondents in other two islands consider cyclonic storm as a
disaster that demands any preparedness. They are most concerned about the surges and flooding
of the area irrespective of the origin of the event (Table 2). Consequently very few of them think
of moving out of their houses to a safe shelter during cyclone and surges, even when the shelters
are available in vicinity and remained connected with roads.
Table 2: Proportion of people perceive different events as disaster
Area Cyclone Surge Flooding None
0.76% 22.43% 69.96% 14.46%
0.00% 35.85% 75.47% 5.66%
0.00% 59.09% 75.47% 0.00%
The percentage of people voluntarily moving to a safe shelter is as low as 28.6%, 37.74% and
31.82% at Sagar, Mousuni and Ghoramara respectively. It is estimated that, among those who
prefer staying at home even during cyclonic storm and flooded condition 39.39% are having safe
shelters within 1km from their home at Mousuni and Ghoramara. The proportion of such
inhabitants are slightly lower (35.1%) at Sagar island. In fact, all the blacktopped roads in Sagar
and as much as 80% of the brick roads at all the islands remain usable or partially usable during
the event (Table 3).
Table 3: Availability of scopes to those who are not ready to leave their houses during event.
Study Area People who do not avail a safe shelter
Distance of Safe shelter Road condition remains Aware of evacuation route
<500m < 1 km Usable Partly usable
71.4% 14.36% 20.74% 38.30% 43.62% 22.87%
68.18% 12.12% 27.27% 12.12% 60.60% 36.36%
62.26% 26.26% 13.13% 46.67% 26.67% 33.33%
Hence, it seems neither the road condition nor distance from a safe shelter, but the lack of
disaster perceptions among the people resist them to go for a safe shelter facilitating any relief
This study simultaneously kept a close eye on some physical factors related to resilience building
of the set up. The portion may otherwise be termed as slow onset disaster and includes soil and
water quality having direct bearings on health and productivity. As a general trend, most of the
respondents who complained for reducing productivity held salinity responsible for it. But, soil
salinity tests even with the samples from direst months, did not report such trend. Only 5.7% soil
samples from the Sagar island falls under minimum salinity regime, i.e. an ECe value of
1.9dSm-1 or more (Mitra & Santra 2011). In a few specific areas where already specifically,
salinity problems were identified (due to vicinity of aquafarms and regular sea water intrusion)
were excluded from this estimate. On the other hand, from Mousuni a similar proportion of soil
salinity was reported while none of the samples from Ghoramara falls under the regime.
However, if an ECe value of 1.0dS m-1 is considered as an indication of elevated salinity then
17% soil of Sagar, and 23.5% soil samples at Mousuni island are sharing the regime. However,
major threat to the productivity of the study island systems have been identified as altered
balance in NPK values and low organic content in soil. 75% soil samples of Ghoramara, 49.1%
samples from Sagar and only 17% samples from Mousuni island have been estimated to have
less than 1% organic matter. This is indicative of excessive tillage (Lal, 2008; Chan, 2008). The
changes in cropping pattern from seasonal vegetables like chilli, tomato, water melon etc. to
paddy monoculture may also have bearings on it. Land conversions (agricultural lands to
aquaculture) and shifting in cropping patterns (from seasonal vegetables to paddy monoculture)
seems reducing the resilience of the area slowly and unnoticed.
All the three islands under study have been found having a good numbers of deep tube wells of
depth reportedly more than 200ft. None of the ground water samples represent a saline condition,
although in general higher salt content (within the fresh water regime) was found at Ghoramara,
followed by Mousuni. However, in another set of ground water quality assessment in drier
season at Sagar island, a trend of patchy variations in ion concentration was reported. The ionic
concentrations were found similar to that of Ghoramara at the north-western tip of Sagar. As the
region is adjacent to Gharamara, it may have some sorts of geological control. The water quality
distribution is not indicative of any deteriorating condition as yet, but it suggests a regular
monitoring is needed to keep proper track on it.
The results are quite capable of answering the central queries put forward and sheds light on
some issues of slow onset disasters and/or factors those can make a disaster management
ineffective. Although, there are differences among the environmental and infrastructural set up of
the three islands under study, but the major findings on disaster perception remains to some
extent similar. Lack of awareness regarding disaster preparedness in those areas is apparent,
instead of formal and non-formal efforts of Governmental agencies and NGOs working in the
field for years. It seems there have been some hindrances in percolation of the matter at grass
root. Even at Mousuni with only 24sq.kms area such problem has been found. While an
international NGO is working on community development and disaster preparedness in one of
the four mouzas, respondents from the other three mouzas and even same mouza could not say
anything about the programme. The matter is similarly predominant in Sagar island too.
Regarding the slow onset disaster management, no proper set up was found to identify the grey
areas of productivity reduction and suggest an ideal management plan. Instead of showing
concern about soil salinisation very few respondents were found to be aware of any salt tolerant
variety. Even, the shifting cropping patters are very sporadic in nature, which leads to ineffective
management in case of any natural disaster happens.
It is apparent that, underutilization of adaptive capacity may jeopardize the disaster management
plan of the authority due to lack of awareness and acceptance of the approach. There remains an
unnoticed or unattended wide gap in coordination of different sectors. Therefore, a paradigm
shift seems necessary to invade the grass root. Mere establishment of cyclone shelters,
evacuation route etc. would cease to work until a proper capacity building among stakeholders is
The author is grateful to the UGC, New Delhi (ERO, Kolkata), for financial support to carry out
the research in form of Minor Research Project. He also acknowledges the help of his Ph.D.
student Smt. Rituparna Hajra, for her assistance during the research work.
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