India’s size and diversity makes it one of the the most disaster-prone countries in Asia. Large coastal areas in the south suffer from cyclones, while the northern mountainous areas suffer from landslides and floods, and droughts regularly affect the country’s central region.

Every year, these result in a huge loss of lives, damage infrastructure, and disrupt vital services. The country’s National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) has just announced plans to build a national disaster database by 2020, which it hopes will help minimise the impact.

GovInsider finds out why this is crucial from Rajesh Sharma, a disaster risk information and application specialist at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – one of the UN agencies working on the project with the Indian Government.

Understanding risk by getting data

The goal is that by getting detailed data on natural disasters at the local level, “governments can really target their investment to the relevant areas”, Sharma says, thereby increasing the impact of often scarce development resources.

“If we do not understand this impact, we cannot really take targeted actions to reduce those losses.”

The database will include detailed statistics on every natural disaster in the country, including mortality rates, economic losses and interruption to services. Without this data at the local level, governments cannot understand the impact of disasters on the country’s development. “If we do not understand this impact, we cannot really take targeted actions to reduce those losses,” he adds.

India is part of an international agreement where countries have committed to reducing the impact of natural disasters as a part of their overall development goals. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction requires these countries to report on vital disaster risk indicators, like the number of casualties caused by natural disasters in a given year.

Examples from Indonesia and Cambodia

Two countries in Asia have already shown the benefits such disaster databases can provide. In Cambodia, comparing the occurrence and mortality of different kinds of disaster yielded interesting insights for the local government.

For instance, floods had the highest death rates, followed by lightning strikes. But the government had not paid attention to the latter. Unlike floods which cause mass deaths in a small location, deaths from lightning are scattered over a number of different locations. “There were no ongoing activities in terms of reducing the mortality from lightning”, Sharma says, which changed after UNDP presented these insights to the local government.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia the national agency for disaster management struggled with the question of how to allocate funds for disaster relief. Should they just distribute funds equally among regions or based on population density, or some other criteria?

The country’s national disaster database provided them with a better answer. “They were able to look at the historical disaster data and categorise all provinces in either a low, medium or high risk province”, says Sharma. “A high-risk province consequently received more funds than a low-risk province.”

But the collected detailed data on disasters and their effects also provides insights on a global level. The UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction found that small but frequent disasters can have a huge impact on economic development, but they often get less attention than they need from national and local governments. “Where people are repeatedly affected at a local level by recurring small disasters, they are never able to come out of poverty,” Sharma says.

Analysing the data can help create awareness of the impact of such smaller disasters. “This is why we would like countries to be supportive of this kind of database so that they can get more insights and then use them in their development policies,” he adds.

Making data an integral part of local decision-making

This is also Sharma’s hope for the project in India. Local authorities implementing projects such as building roads and schools should use the kind of disaster data made available through the national database in their daily work.

As Sharma explains, through the database “they will be able to understand what is happening in their own district and then they can take the preventive actions needed or request further information. Then we really have resilient development.”

To ensure this level of government adoption, UNDP focuses on building up the capacities needed within the government and limits itself to providing technical know-how. Last week, Sharma conducted the first workshop with the Indian Government representatives sharing experiences from other countries.

The agency’s experience shows that once governments are introduced to the benefits of having a proper national disaster database setup, they can take its development into their own hands. Indonesia, for example, started to develop additional applications that build upon the national disaster database. One example is the InaRisk application that is available to citizens. It uses historical disaster data to assess future disaster risks in different parts of Indonesia.

To foster innovation and leverage the potential of the database, UNDP also strongly encourages governments to open up the database to the public so that the private sector, NGOs and citizens can access the data. “This will demand more action from all the stakeholders and I think it will raise more awareness in the long run, leading to an overall improvement in the use of disaster risk information,” Sharma says.

The experience in Asia so far with national disaster databases raise hopes for the project announced in India. It could help focus minds and attention on disasters that otherwise go unnoticed, but have a huge knock-on effect for local communities.

Image by Diariocritico de VenezuelaCC BY 2.0