Lessons from Odisha: A Tale of Transformation in Disaster Management

A Global Model for Disaster Management and Preparedness

It has been a quarter-century since Odisha, a state on the eastern coast of India, faced the catastrophic Super Cyclone that left a trail of devastation. With over 10,000 lives lost, an economy in ruins, and approximately 18 million people affected, this calamity was a turning point for Odisha’s development trajectory.

Rather than succumbing to the cycle of disaster and despair, Odisha made a resolute commitment to safeguard its people from future catastrophes, setting a visionary goal of ‘zero-human casualties.’ In doing so, it emerged as a global pioneer in disaster management, a remarkable transformation that the world can learn from.

Over the years, Odisha’s meticulous planning and disaster preparedness have yielded substantial benefits, with fatalities from powerful cyclones consistently staying in single digits. When Cyclone Phailin struck the coast in 2013, Odisha executed one of the most successful disaster management efforts globally, evacuating nearly 1 million people ahead of the strongest cyclone to hit the country since the Super Cyclone. In 2019, when Cyclone Fani made landfall, the Odisha government displayed exceptional preparedness, successfully evacuating about 1.2 million people based on early predictions.

In 1999, following the Super Cyclone, Odisha became the first state in India to establish a dedicated disaster management authority, the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA), even preceding the formation of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in 2005.

Crucially, Odisha adopted an innovative approach to disaster management by placing local communities at the center of their efforts. Grassroots entities, including gram panchayats, women’s self-help groups, and a cadre of over 100,000 volunteers, were trained to reduce disaster risks and manage rescue and relief operations. The OSDMA continues to conduct large-scale community-led mock drills across the state each June and November, engaging various government departments, district collectors, gram panchayats, NGOs, and thousands of trained volunteers in this massive exercise.

Empowering communities is just one facet of the solution; building disaster-resilient infrastructure is equally vital. OSDMA has taken the lead in establishing critical infrastructure that safeguards lives and livelihoods by collaborating with multiple government departments. Partnering with organizations like the World Bank and other multilateral agencies, OSDMA has constructed over 800 multi-purpose cyclone shelters, evacuation roads along the entire coastline, embankments to shield seaside villages, and multi-hazard disaster-resilient houses for vulnerable families.

Notably, Odisha stands as the first Indian state to create an early warning system that disseminates crucial disaster-related information to the remotest areas. Nearly 1,200 villages in coastal districts receive cyclone and tsunami warnings through sirens and mass messaging. This early warning system, supported by watchtowers in over 120 coastal locations, forms the cornerstone of Odisha’s disaster preparedness and response.

Two decades of unwavering commitment to building both resilient infrastructure and communities have positioned the state well. However, the journey is far from over. Disaster risk management is a dynamic process, demanding constant vigilance to address evolving needs and challenges. With various climate-related risks on the horizon, Odisha anticipates more frequent and intense cyclones, heat waves, droughts, extreme rainfall events, floods, lightning storms, surges, tsunamis, and sea-level rise. Coastal protection against sea erosion is also a pressing concern.

Odisha’s experience exemplifies the importance of continuous learning and adaptability. As climate risks multiply, the state is elevating its efforts in cyclone risk mitigation and exploring advanced technologies, always with a focus on making them accessible to and owned by local communities. Odisha’s journey underscores that disaster preparedness and management have become imperative for every state, tailored to its socio-cultural context but pursued with a sense of urgency. Climate change poses a clear and present danger, and the lives and livelihoods of millions hang in the balance.

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