For the simple, hardy people of Maharashtra's Kolhapur district, rivers have always been benign and bounteous while rains the harbinger of hope. Once they heaped misery, Kolhapur rose as one to face the challenge.
Though flash floods are routine in some villages in the district, people generally took them in their stride as they rarely caused any great harm, said Prasad Sankpal of Jaisinghpur.
The floods in 1994 stand out in recent memory in this sugarcane-rich district of south Maharashtra. But the rainfall percentage had shown a steady downward trend since then. The devastating floods of 2005 thus caught the people unawares. They submerged, partially or wholly, 42 of 52 villages in Shirol taluka (sub-district) and 19 of 62 villages in Hatkanangale.
Yet, it did not bother the people much as they thought water would recede as quickly as it rose. Indeed, the villagers were reluctant to get evacuated when the administration advised them to do so. Unfortunately, they were badly hit.
This taught everyone, including the district administration, a lesson they were unlikely to forget. In 2006, there was a sea change in their approach.
District Collector Pravin Darade and Resident District Collector Milind Pathak played a key role in flood relief work. "There was preparedness in our approach," said Prasad, who was the district project officer of the Disaster Risk Management (DRM) committee.
In the 2006 floods, water remained accumulated for 22 days. However, the grim situation in several villages was combated by DRM task teams in all aspects - from early warning to search and rescue, rehabilitation of the flood-hit to provision of food and medicare.
The excellent work here was highlighted as a model for the DRM machinery in the other 13 districts of Maharashtra.
How did it all happen?
Presuming that heavy floods could occur again, the emphasis in the preparatory phase of 2006 was on raising awareness.
Hoardings were put up at prominent places, picture slides with instructions were shown in cinema halls, pamphlets were distributed, educative radio talks were held on flood disaster and the community-based methods of tackling it. Street plays were organised.
As a first step, a district disaster management committee (DDMC) and 12 committees at the taluka level were set up.
Five teams each were formed in 1,030 gram panchayats. Every team had a specific assignment: early warning, search and rescue, first aid, shelter, and drinking water and sanitation.
While selecting members for the teams, their age, knowledge and capability was considered. Experts imparted training and standard operating procedures were meticulously followed for search and rescue operations.
Heavy floods struck the district less than a week after the DDMC training camp for volunteers.
NGOs did great work in search and rescue. Their volunteers received training at Yashvantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration (YASHADA), Pune.
Prasad Sankpal, the UNDP appointed district project officer (DPO) coordinating the DRM programme in tandem with the local administration, points out one more success of the project - making it appear like a people's initiative in which the administration provides back up.
When floodwaters gushed into many villages and remained accumulated for days, lives could be saved because of the meticulous planning and preparatory exercise and professional execution of rescue and relief work.
For effective communication and coordination, the wireless system of the revenue department was pressed into service and so was HAM radio.
A milestone in DRM's work was the purchase of life saving equipment in adequate quantities with MPs' fund. Collector Pravin Darade persuaded the two MPs in the district to give Rs.1.1 million each for the purpose.
During peak periods, three broadcasts a day were made through phone-ins to keep people informed. Those in marooned villages could send SOS messages, receive instructions and get rescued, transported and sheltered, all because of the communication and relief operation and adequate machinery at the DRM programme's disposal.
A control room was set up in addition to the government control room. It was equipped with a TV, a computer system with Internet link, and a wireless system besides the regular phone connections and four mobile phones.
Executive heads of departments such as revenue, irrigation and public works, agriculture, animal husbandry, power and police were present in the control room and they did wonders, said Pathak.