Natural Disasters A Concern for Security

Wars, regional conflicts, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (AMDs), and terrorism are some of the conventional security hazards constantly reviewed by the security planners to update the preventive steps for the security of the nation. On the contrary, a number of non-traditional security threats that can have as disastrous an impact on human security as conventional threats often get overlooked. A study of some of these non-traditional security threats to our country like the floods and droughts, water pollution, earthquakes and landslides, rise in the sea level and, of late, the tsunami highlight the need for proactive steps to be taken by policy makers to mitigate the ill-effects of such threats.


Statistics show that nearly eight million hectares of land in India is flooded annually. The Indo-Gangetic plains where more than 400 million people live in dense clusters are most vulnerable to floods. The geological history of these plains tells us that they have been formed by the sediments left by the rivers in spate. The floods have been there since times immemorial and are part and parcel of the natural system. They have become scary not because of the nature's ire, but because we have started 'developing' and occupying the flood pathways of the rivers. For example, one of the publications of the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi, published in 2001 states that the population affected by the deluges rose from 3.6 million in 1965 to 7 million in 1978.

Past floods have deluged the Harappan townships of 2500-2200 B.C. to 2200-1700 B.C. Now only their remnants are sometimes 'discovered' in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Unmindful of this knowledge we continue to develop 'river front' habitations even in the country's capital, New Delhi. The population and political pressures and often a tendency to make a quick buck drive the society to occupy the flood pathways and await the river's wrath.

In the 62 river basins there are 132 watershed-level forecasting centers and 25 inflow forecasting units. During monsoon 75% of rain pours down in about 100 days. This appreciably increases the discharge of the rivers. Monitoring of these 100 days is crucial to avert the flood threat. There is a dire need of real-time flood forecasting system.

Water Scarcity

There is life on this Earth because of water. Our ancestors' revered water but we have been treating it as a free commodity. Drinking water scarcity has already gripped many a states. For example out of 30 districts of Tamilnadu, the scene for drinking water is pretty bleak at Chennai, Trichy, Madurai, Ramnathapuram, Tuticorin, Dharampuri, Vellur, Chingleput and Coimbatore. Water tankers ferry water from tube wells in distant farmlands daily to these towns. Selling water to the cities has become a lucrative vocation for the farmer. He makes around Rs 15,000 a month without tilling his fields. Electricity to run these tube wells owned by the farmers is of course free. Lucrative isn't it!

Like floods, droughts have been part and parcel of our environment since the past geological eras. The news of droughts brings to mind pictures of polygonal cracks on the surface of dry and barren fields. It will be interesting to know that such cracks are also found in rocks as old as 3000 million year in Mirzapur district, U.P. Droughts of the past are also evidenced in the form of salt and gypsum deposits as old as 1800 to 60 million years in Rajasthan, J. & K., H.P. and Uttaranchal that bear testimony to the fury of the Sun during the period. It may be noted that evaporation of 300 meter deep sea column produces a five meter thick salt deposit.

Droughts can be faced if we manage our resources properly. Water conservation and rain water harvesting has to come out in open fields from the files of the state governments.

We have made our rivers a carrier of refuse and the demand for groundwater is already under great stress. Fortunately at present it is a problem of management than availability, but if the situation continues like this attrition in the society for water is certain.

Water Pollution

Ground water pollution and scarcity of water is a burning problem. The residents of Delhi are perhaps one of the worst victims of water pollution. A recent report by the Central Pollution Control Board and The Central Ground Water Board is an eye opener. Analyses of the samples from the City, Shahadra and Najafgarh blocks has revealed that 58% water samples have a high content of Coliform (fecal) bacteria. Naturally people suffer from 'Delhi Belly'.

Delhi is just an example. Vast areas of the country from Fazilka in Punjab to Tamilnadu are facing the perils of high fluoride in drinking water. Fluorisis is a crippling disease. Arsenic in groundwater of West Bengal has taken alarming proportions. In 1983 only 63 persons were suffering from arsenic toxicity and now more than nine million are the victims.

Arsenic and fluoride pollution due to natural causes needs more R&D to develop cheaper means of identification and eradication. Water pollution due to anthropogenic interference is a serious matter and only stringent action on part of the Government can act as a deterrent.


The Himalayan Rivers are a great storehouse of Power and potential source for irrigating the parched plains. These rivers are prone to blockage from the landslide and sometimes cause flash floods. Bursting of these blockades can cause havoc on the population downstream. For example, a landslide blocked Birehi Ganga in Uttaranchal in 1893 and a four mile long and one mile broad lake was formed. Within few months the dam breached and the flash floods within hours submerged Chamoli and Haridwar with 160 and 13 feet of water respectively. In the recent past, a flash flood due to a similar dam burst in Tibet in 2000 caused flash floods in the Sutlej River, downstream H.P. where 70 lives were lost, more than 100 bridges and a power plant were damaged. The damming of Pareechu River, a tributary of Sutlej, in Tibet in 2004 once again caused serious concern. Fortunately the bubble did not burst and the Himalayan valleys downstream escaped the fury of flash floods. Rivers draining from other countries to ours need special attention and monitoring.

Excessive rain or snow is major causative factor for landslides. The recent avalanches in Kashmir valley followed by landslides became a nightmare for the residents. On 24th September 2003, the people of Uttarkashi in Uttaranchal had a narrow escape when Varuna Mountain decided to slide down. A forewarning by the geologists of Geological Survey of India working on the mountain saved a major loss of lives however, property could not be saved.

Landslide hazard prone areas are not difficult to identify and map. Such maps need to be constantly updated and passed on to the district authorities for precautionary measures. A proactive society can play a better role to save the population of the hills from mass burials.


The geologic setting of our country is such that the Indian Plate is constantly crashing against the Tibetan Plate. The continuous sub-duction of the Indian Plate under the Tibetan Plate is like a car hitting a wall again and again. The bumper (Uttaranchal) bears the brunt and the rear seat passengers (Delhi) get severely jolted. Yes during an earthquake in Uttaranchal, Delhi is most vulnerable.
Earthquakes of their own do not kill people. They die due to building collapse or landslides. Since the historical past and till date more than 100,000 people have lost their lives in Indian earthquakes. Detailed seismic maps, micro-zoning and educating masses about the hazard are need of the time.

Sea Level Rise and Tsunamis

Apart from these some hidden security threats are the rising sea level and the tsunami. The former is like a slow poison and the latter is sudden and swift. As per the Survey Of India measurements the rate of rise of sea level is 0.5-11 mm/year. In the past 3000 years this rate has increased by ten times. By the year 2050 the sea along the Indian coasts is expected to rise by about 21 cm and by the turn of the century it would be one meter higher. The consequences would be far reaching. Nearly 6000 square kilometer of the coastal land would be submerged, displacing millions of people. Islands like Maldives would be most vulnerable to the deluge.

Tsunami warning system is being installed along the coasts. Yet if the states ignore the coastal zone regulations and allow settlements adjacent to the coasts, warning systems will be of little use.

The list of such threats is pretty long. Snow Avalanches on the mountain slopes, Cyclones on the coastal regions and forest fires in the Himalayas all need preparedness.

Intelligence is the crux of any security drill. Knowledge about the enemy (read hazard) helps in better preparedness. Early warning mechanisms combined with ongoing education and awareness programs for the masses will make the effort of post-incident disaster management more effective. 


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

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