As India continues to be struck by natural disasters and extreme weather conditions, a church group is pitching in with others to help prepare villagers for when calamity strikes. Since April, dust storms and rains
across the northern and eastern part of the country have killed 278 people, 223 of them in the first fortnight of May. In fact from 2005-2014, natural disasters have claimed the lives of 2,200 people in the country and caused an estimated economic loss of about US$10 billion, government figures show. Freak weather breakouts are believed to be increasing due to climate change and rapid industrialization, experts said at a conference in New Delhi on May 19. Federal Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba said the government organized the meeting to stress the importance of minimizing risk and losses in the face of such disasters as all 29 states have been told to prepare for the worst.
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"We have to upgrade our level of preparedness through better weather forecasting, by conducting mock drills and with improved management of resources," he said during the daylong conference. "Through continued efforts over the last several years we have managed to reduce the impact of natural disasters, but there is still room for improvement," Gauba added. Even before the government began expressing its concern, Caritas India, the local arm of the church's international social service, has been working in villages to warn people what to expect and how to deal with certain eventualities, said its spokesperson Anjan Bag. Church groups began to keenly involve themselves in such activities after Pope Francis in his May 2015 encyclical Laudato si
stressed the need for greater participation in projects aimed at protecting the environment. The letter said the post-industrial period "may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history" and underlined the urgency to change paths to end the over-exploitation of nature just so a minority can enjoy certain luxuries. Since 2017, Caritas India
has been working on the ground in the states of Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, and Gujarat to make people better aware of how they can reduce risks when nature turns on them, Bag told ucanews.com. The agency also helps provide relief efforts to victims of natural disasters including floods, he added. In 2017 the agency reached out to 350,495 people covering 78,382 households in 28 districts in flood-hit states. Following those rescue and rehabilitation efforts, the agency started offering disaster risk training to people in key states whose towns and villages have been devastated by natural disasters
. Government experts like Gauba said India is flood-prone because the bulk of precipitation occurs in a short space of time, but added that the resulting losses can be reduced if villagers are better prepared. Over 1,000 people died and 30 million more were affected in the June-August monsoon of last year when flash floods and landslides battered Assam, Manipur, Bihar, West Bengal, Gujarat, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, and Nagaland. Assam and Bihar were the worst hit as some 17 million in 21 districts were affected. More than 700 people lost their lives in these two states alone. According to Jahangir Ahmad, a research scholar at the University of Kashmir, about 60 percent of the landmass in India is prone to earthquakes of various intensity and over 40 million hectares in the country are prone to floods. "About eight percent of the total land area in India is prone to cyclones and 68 percent is susceptible to drought," he told ucanews.com. "This merits serious concern, and measures are needed to get people prepared for these kind of incidents. Precious lives have been lost in the past because no one was ready in advance," he added. Birju Ram remembers vividly how flash floods on Aug. 18 of last year washed away his single-story house at Northern Bihar's Purnia district. Along with the house, Ram also lost his cattle and household goods. "That was the tough period. Everything happened in an instant and we were left in a state of shambles by the devastating floods," he told ucanews.com. A daily laborer and father of three, Ram also has to care for his ailing mother. He said he was at his wit's end before Caritas came to the rescue. The group also conducts regular health check-ups and "trains us about the do's and don'ts during a natural disaster," he said. He attended eight training sessions. "They helped me to understand what I need to do in the event that we see a repeat of what happened in 2017," Ram said. Ali Mohammad Sofi attended similar classes in Jammu and Kashmir, which witnessed massive floods back in 2014 that killed at least 270 people and affected people in 2,500 villages. Sofi told ucanews.com he has been participating in the training programs for over a year and "has been trained to safeguard lives in the event of floods and earthquakes." "They told us to make sure we always have sufficient water supplies, medicine and lighting equipment and not to panic," he said. "Such training camps are constantly being organized in the villages" that experienced a heavy toll from the freak weather in 2014, Sofi said. Increasing urbanization is considered one of the causes of the recent spike in the frequency and severity of natural disasters. Government census data from 2011 indicates that 31 percent of Indians now live in cities, causing urban areas to grow while rural populations slowly shrink. "This has led to the vast conversion of farmland into construction sites. The rivers and streams have been blocked and the forest cover removed," said Sunil Dhar, a New Delhi-based environmentalist. "Villages are rapidly being converted into towns and even cities, which exposes the population to severe disaster risks," he added. Poor land-use planning, widespread construction work — often in violation of the law — and the absence of disaster-risk assessment in urban design have resulted in concretization, predisposing cities to greater risk, said Alison Saldanha, a senior associate at the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy.