Lack of expertise and finance a challenge to officials as Ernakulam prepares to meet exigencies after likely opening of Idukki dam

Even as the district gears up to meet exigencies in the aftermath of a probable release of water from the Idukki dam, the fact remains that the District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA), considered the best among the DDMAs in the State, expected to be in the vanguard of all disaster response measures, continues to be bogged down by institutional shortcomings.

In fact, the majority of challenges that the State admitted to in its proposal to the Union government while seeking assistance for disaster risk reduction at the height of the controversy over the safety of Mullaperiyar dam in 2011 persist even now.

While the DDMA has drawn up an exhaustive resource inventory to fight disasters and the disaster management plan in 2010, which are now being updated, operational challenges in the effective execution of that plan remains a concern.

For a body entrusted with responsibilities crucial to the lives and property of the people, the DDMA has not much of a technical assistance except for a single subject expert. Considering the enormity of the challenge, a sole expert is far from adequate, to say the least. Ernakulam is the only district to have roped in the service of at least one expert.

A team of revenue officials, including seven tahsildars, two Revenue Divisional Officers, a Deputy Collector, a junior superintendent and two section clerks, who have their hands full even otherwise form the fulcrum of the disaster management measures in the district that call for subject expertise.

Sources said that finance remains a major constraint in disaster prevention and mitigation measures. There is no proper mechanism to integrate these preventive and mitigation measures into development planning, as development continues to overlook disaster risks. Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), a significant player in disaster mitigation on account of their close prominence to the people, continues to lack the capacity to react institutionally to disasters.

Except for the VHF Radio-based Tsunami Early Warning System that helps disseminate alerts to 26 villages and seven taluks in the district through public announcement (PA) system, there is no effective early warning system. Even that PA system is not functioning at many places. Absence of effective early warning could lead to delayed responses, hampering coordinated and unified measures.

Though a software-based early warning system that generates 100 messages in a go is active in the district, it is not meant for the public but for district level officers.

Community participation, a significant component of disaster management, continues to be problematic. While awareness campaigns are being held, disaster management drills are not being conducted frequently for want of funds, sources said. While the DDMA participates in chemical emergency mock drills organised by companies frequently, it hardly organises drills at its own initiative.

Crucially, there is no system for examining the constructions not just in the district but in the entire State to ensure compliance of building codes to avert catastrophes when disasters like earthquakes strike.

Lack of coordination among various departments and other stakeholders could prove costly in the event of a disaster. Sources said that while the health department has a concrete disaster management plan, majority of other departments had been found wanting. This could lead to non-familiarisation with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to be followed in disaster management. In fact, except for chemical disasters, the district lacks disaster-specific SOPs.

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