Urban planning lessons from the Kerala floods

The coverage of disasters in the media follows a predictable cycle. Commencing with the surge of the disaster, it moves to despair, heroic stories of social resilience, an outpouring of relief and finally, the blame game. The blame game often sets the tone for the “development vs environment” debate. The process of rebuilding the built environment and rehabilitating livelihoods is the most prolonged and resource-intensive phase of a disaster cycle. This is unfortunately beyond the patience of mainstream media coverage, which fails to highlight that a long rehabilitation cycle indicates a critical lapse in disaster preparedness measures. While Kerala takes the spotlight today, losses from recurrent losses from flooding in India call for a fresh perspective on our strategies for disaster risk reduction.

The Kerala floods were a level 3 (severe) calamity, aggravated by the opening of 80 per cent of the state’s dams to release overflowing waters, causing massive landslides. These washed away several thousand kilometers of roads, disrupted the functioning of a critical rail line, flooded the airport runway, stopping operations, and submerged several power stations, causing a telecommunication failure. These impeded the functioning of lifeline facilities such as hospitals, schools, fire and signalling stations that are critical for faster recovery. A lot of this may be attributed to the fact that this was an unforeseen “once in 100 years” event. However, experience shows that despite understanding the consequences and pooling in resources to prepare for “low frequency-high intensity” calamities, the damage may still be overwhelming for existing coping capacities. 

There is a tendency to look at the “development vs environment” debate as a black and white fallacy. A chain of recommendations in the past imposed restrictions against development to conserve the environment. In theory, blanket regulations address the problem of unmindful development by prohibiting development altogether. However, these have not proven to be effective due to development pressures. More importantly, regeneration of the natural environment to reverse decades of ecological damage needs to be better qualified with timelines and data management. Even blanket environmental policies cannot be critiqued within limited time spans for their ineffectiveness. 

For example, development in the downstream areas of a dam needs to be minimised and the built stock there must be resilient to higher levels of water in case of flooding. The Bureau of Indian Standards provides adequate guidelines to regulate the creation of built stock. However, macro aspects such as land use planning do not have the mandate to be risk-sensitive. In the not-so-distant future India is expected to host 20 per cent of humanity. Development is inevitable. The system needs to leap forward to assess risks and evolve existing standards to regulate the quality of development. 

Asian cities that face floods (Dagupan, Dhaka) have started integrating risk information into their land use plans. Such mainstreaming also provides a better idea of the probability of risk that a city must be prepared for (one in 20 years, one in 100 years, etc). Countries such as the US, Netherlands, Afghanistan, and Brazil have their hazard vulnerability maps in the public domain, to encourage action and ownership among citizens and minimise disaster response time and losses. The effective “biscuits and blankets response” approach needs to be ably complemented with effective planning measures to pre-empt the consequences of disasters.

The value of urban planning has been severely undermined in India. While there is a statutory regulator for architects, there is no mandate body to regulate the practice of engineers and town planners who together formulate most modern planning decisions. Large-scale problems call for institutionalised engagement with the urban planner to bring development in line with the environment. India is not alone in this battle. 

Recently, Jakarta emerged as the world’s fastest-sinking city and Cape Town had a close brush with “Day Zero”, when the city’s taps would go dry. Global initiatives such as “Rebuild by Design” and “Water as Leverage” are encouraging multidisciplinary thinking to find creative solutions for problems of coastal cities. Flood-threatened Netherlands (almost the same size as Kerala), adopted a national policy for infrastructure and spatial planning that enables an integrated perspective for development with risks.

As we gear up to invest trillions in new cities, it is essential to orient the development process to be resilient and not create additional risks. In 2016, the prime minister set out a ten-point agenda for disaster risk reduction which recommends “all development sectors to imbibe principles of disaster risk management.” India’s ongoing plan to form a global Coalition on Disaster Resilient Infrastructure is a step towards deliberating on issues for better risk assessment, standards and financing mechanisms for resilient development.

India’s diversified development landscape has not been suitable for an integrated planning system that reasonably accounts for the economy and the environment. The Kerala floods are a reminder that it is imperative to take a macro view of the development trajectory that has got us to the current state of affairs. Bringing the role of the urban planner to centre-stage may hold answers to long-term resilience.
The writer is a consultant expert on disaster risk reduction with UNISDR

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