Cyclone Berguitta is the first major cyclone to affect Mauritius and Rodrigues since the advent of the very intense cyclone Dina of January 2002. Cyclones invariably cause catastrophic floods and damage to the economy. While only a few cyclones or severe storms have affected the Republic over the last 15 years, flood conditions have prevailed almost invariably every year, often several times a year.
While a cyclone can be apocalyptic for the entire nation and requires all our attention, the repetitive adverse impacts of flood can be more pernicious and be cumulatively more disastrous socially, economically, and environmentally. This assessment should alert us to develop mitigation and adaptation strategies, beyond the well-established emergency measures. The flood-affected population, the authorities and the private sector face the same scenarios with every flood event – damaged houses, roads and other vital infrastructure, and exasperated flood victims with damaged crops and personal belongings. Flooding makes such an impression that every time heavy rains are forecast, the population is thrown in a trauma of uncertainty and anxiety and the underprivileged sectors of the community feel compelled to line up for dole.
It would appear that the catastrophic floods of 2008 and 2013 did not bring about any major change in ways of dealing with flood events. Do we need another major catastrophe to design a more effective system that includes early warning, emergency measures, rehabilitation and resilience building?
Formerly, flood events were mostly associated with cyclones, torrential rains or storm surges. The inland flood water used to recede quickly along natural storm drains and wide open space all over the island. Over the last decades, however, the increase in built-up areas with surrounding walls, expansion of economic activities, increase in waste and uncivil disposal methods, disregard for natural storm drains, inconsiderate exploitation of wetlands, poorly planned or executed urbanisation, and unsound land use practices have amplified flood conditions. The situation is expected to get worse as climate change is projected to increase the frequency of intense rains.
As flood disasters often occur simultaneously in several localities, it is often found expedient by the authorities to view them as one-off event given the limited resources available for dealing with them. By treating the symptoms and providing mainly emergency relief in the recovery phase, the root causes of flood disasters are often disregarded.
The psychological trauma of living with flood from one event to the next further amplifies the vulnerability of the affected victims. Economically well-off households cope by building flood defence structures which only transfer the risk to the least vulnerable ones in the community.
The current approach to flood mitigation rests on two premises. The first is non-structural and refers primarily to a response and warning system that was developed and applied successfully for cyclones. It was established in the 1960s and has served the nation well over the years. The efficient warning/response system has greatly reduced the number of deaths. The new weather radar could be supplemented by additional automatic weather stations and a computer system powerful enough to run flood forecasting models.
The second building block is structural. Here, the emphasis is on proper designs and the upgrading and maintenance of drains and other flood defences as well as the strict application of stream and building regulations. Here again the measures could be more thorough.
For effectiveness, the above two pillars of our flood management policy should also take into account not only the long-standing national and local experience of dealing with cyclone-related disasters but also international know-how and commitments to disaster mitigation as enshrined in UN and regional frameworks up to 2030. They both call for a paradigm shift from the ‘top-down’ approach to an integration of the strengths of both experts’ views and local people’s experience of coping with disasters.
The underlying principle is that the people who live through the danger clearly perceive the threats to their lives, property and things they value. An integrating model would create new synergies between local agencies and authorities, scientific experts, the private sector, community-based and non-governmental organizations and the public. It would ensure greater ownership, self-help, and regard for ethics and community living.
The recurrent flooding should be taken as another opportunity to develop a ‘Marshall-like’ Plan. It could address systematically the complex task of predicting, communicating, engaging the community, the private sector and the NGOs while ensuring that the contingency measures are well understood and implemented. The approach could ensure an effective use of resources and draw in additional funds and capacity.
The Fact Finding Committee initiated soon after the catastrophic flood disaster of 2008 in Port Louis had led to wide-ranging consultations with representatives of all stakeholders. As a result, several recommendations were proposed. These were complemented by those of the World Meteorological Organisation and the judiciary. These could serve as a springboard to jump start the formulation and implementation of a flood disaster risk management policy for combating flood and overcoming the related psychological trauma.