Indian Journal of Public Health

: 2020  |  Volume : 64  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 1--3

Disasters: Implications, mitigation, and preparedness

Zile Singh 
 Member, Journal Advisory Board, Indian Journal of Public Health; Former Professor and Head, Department of Community Medicine, Armed Forces Medical College, Pune and Pondicherry Institute of Medical Sciences, Puducherry, India

Correspondence Address:
Zile Singh
Member, Journal Advisory Board, Indian Journal of Public Health; Former Professor and Head, Department of Community Medicine, Armed Forces Medical College, Pune and Pondicherry Institute of Medical Sciences, Puducherry

How to cite this article:
Singh Z. Disasters: Implications, mitigation, and preparedness.Indian J Public Health 2020;64:1-3

How to cite this URL:
Singh Z. Disasters: Implications, mitigation, and preparedness. Indian J Public Health [serial online] 2020 [cited 2023 Jan 27 ];64:1-3
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Full Text

“I always tried to turn every disaster into an opportunity”

–John D. Rockefeller

Disaster means a catastrophe, mishap, calamity, or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or anthropogenic causes, or by accident or negligence, which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of property or damage to, or degradation of environment, and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area.[1] The World Health Organization defines disaster as, “a sudden ecological phenomenon of sufficient magnitude to require external assistance.”[2]

The disaster may be natural and anthropogenic.

Natural: Volcano eruption, earthquake, wild fire, snow avalanche, heat wave, cold weather, hurricane, floods, drought, landslide, blizzard, epidemics, etc.

Anthropogenic: Nuclear, biological, chemical, industrial and transport accidents, mining disasters, dam breaks, oil spills, explosions, terrorist attacks, wars, etc.

 Major Natural Disasters

Disasters are increasing globally in frequency and severity due to rising population, earth warming, earthquakes, and increase in disease-carrying vectors causing colossal loss of lives and material damage. About 772,000 people died worldwide from disasters during 2006 to 2015 according to the World Disasters Report 2016.[3]

Notable natural disasters during the last 100 years are Spanish flu pandemic (1918–1919) causing 25–30 million deaths and Tokyo earthquake (1923) that killed 1.5 lakhs people; China floods (1931) took a toll of 3.7 million lives. In Bangladesh 1, 40,000 people died in a cyclone in 1991. Tsunami caused 230,000 deaths and displaced 1.7 million people in 14 countries in 2004. Hurricane Katrina (2005) was the costliest disaster in the USA causing one trillion USD damage.[4]

India is prone to natural disasters due to large mountainous tracts, 7500 km coastline, vast deserts, forests, rivers, thickly populated cities/towns, and extremes of hot and cold climatic areas. Thirty major disasters have struck in India since the 1970s.[5] Super cyclone caused death of about 15,000 people in Odisha in 1999. Gujarat earthquake killed around 20,000 people in 2001. Tsunami in 2004 killed nearly 11,000 people and displaced 150,000.[6] 1094 people were killed in Maharashtra floods (2005). Heavy rainfall/landslides caused large-scale destruction of houses, structures, and 4094 deaths in Uttarakhand in June 2013.[7]

 Implications of Disasters

The implications of a disaster depend on its type and severity, vulnerable population, and the capacity of the community or the local organization to cope up with the disaster. Some of the factors contributing to the impact are the immediate reactions of the people, population migration, outbreak of communicable diseases, availability of food and potable water supply, climatic conditions, and damage to the infrastructure such as roads, electric supply, and housing.

Physical, environmental, and social implications

Socioeconomic consequences of a disaster are represented by the number of fatalities and economic damage. There is lot of disaster-related suffering, morbidity, hardship, stress, and feeling of helplessness. The consequences could be direct, such as damage to buildings, roads, electricity and water supply, food supply, railways, bridges, hospitals, schools, industrial installations, irrigation channels, private property, loss of jobs, disruption of telephones. Indirect effects are felt over a longer period of time due to nuclear explosions or chemical disasters.

Health implications

Elderly population, children, pregnant women, low socioeconomic groups, high-density populations, and migrants are more vulnerable to the vagaries of disasters. The short-term health effects are deaths and outbreaks of communicable diseases such as cholera and viral hepatitis. The long-term effects include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, physical disabilities, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), e.g., insecurity, fear of another calamity, fatigue, poor concentration, nervousness, sleep, and appetite disturbances. A longitudinal study found that 15%–20% of people affected by a disaster had symptoms of PTSD.[8]

 Mitigation Strategies

Mitigation is aimed at preventing the disaster or reducing adverse personal, socioeconomic, and environmental impact on the community. This could be achieved by proper land use planning; developing emergency preparedness and response guidelines; and their dissemination at national, regional, and local levels to all stakeholders. A comprehensive mitigation strategy should be inclusive of all government and private organizations, all social groups, and local community.

 Disaster Risk Reduction

Losses to a disaster-affected region disrupt almost all sectors of the economy and quality of life of the people. Investment of every dollar in disaster risk reduction (DRR) could save six dollars in disaster aftermath.[9] Specific risk reduction measures are needed for various disasters. However, the key thematic areas for mainstreaming DRR are improving risk awareness, effective risk management strategy ensuring social inclusiveness, mutual reinforcement under major global frameworks, capacity development, intersectional coordination, adequate financing, setting targets, timelines, performance indicators, monitoring mechanisms, scrutiny of development plans, early warning systems, adequate legal support, enhanced research, etc.[10]

 Disaster Preparedness

Disaster preparedness measures for risk reduction are required to be taken depending on the type of threat of various disasters and the geographical areas likely to be affected.[11]


Reliable flood risk forecasting and warning systemRigorous implementation of zoning, e.g., land use for human settlements and industrial infrastructureRelocation of riparian inhabitants and structures out of flood prone areasMaking structures to withstand flood forces (dams, storm water drainage system, floodwalls etc.,)Building designs, elevation of floor levels, use of water-resistant materials, strong foundations, etc.,Flood evacuation plans: Identifying shelters and preparing boats and rescue equipmentWatershed management for storage of water.


Seismic zoningAvoid structures in loose soils and reclaimed landStructural design to withstand strong vibrationsStrengthening of existing buildings (retrofitting).


Planting of windbreaks and trimming of tree branchesSiting of building on leeward side of hillsidesGood-quality construction of wind-resistant buildingsProvision of safety shelters and evacuation plans.


Vulnerability analysis of areas and population clusters prone to high risk of firesCapacity development for firefighting in terms of equipment, infrastructure, and human resourceUse of fire-resistant material for buildingsRemove branches and leaf litter around housesProvision of sufficient water supply, hoses, and protective clothingFire evacuation plan.


Digital mapping of Tsunami hazard vulnerable areasDevelopment of early warning systemsPromote research on seismic activity and methods for Tsunami risk assessment.

Cold waves

Monitoring of cold wave situation in coordination with the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and rapid dissemination of the warnings to the publicMaintain good nutrition, wear several layers of warm clothing, change wet clothing frequently, avoid exertion, stock up on food, water and watch for signs of frostbite/hypothermia, and seek early medical care.

 Emergency Preparedness

Ensuring that all stakeholders work together as per standing operative proceduresEstablish rapid deployable communicationsClear and nonambiguous distribution of tasks and responsibilities. Develop rosters of personnel who are prepared to assist in disaster reliefDevelop technology to give advance notification of disasters and emergenciesProvide adequate funds to states for preparation and implementation of plansReview state evacuation plans and essential emergency servicesEstablish adequate help lines in case of emergencies.

 Disaster Response, Recovery, and Rehabilitation Strategies

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction defines response as, “Actions taken directly before, during or immediately after a disaster in order to save lives, reduce health impacts, ensure public safety and meet the basic needs of the people affected.”[12]

The recovery framework includes institutional mechanisms clearly defining roles and responsibilities at all levels, public–private participation, effective use of information and communication technology, pooling of professional skills from diverse areas, and proactive involvement of communities in outreach programs.

Rehabilitation is an integral part of recovery. The rehabilitation package should include reconstruction of damaged infrastructure and psychological rehabilitation of the affected people. The vulnerable groups would need special support to survive the impact of disasters. Educational activities for the children should be revived on priority. Anganwadis and old-age homes should be activated as early as possible. Vocational training camps should be setup to improve the skills of children. Self-help groups should be promoted. Counseling for stress management due to loss of relatives and friends should be a part of disaster rehabilitation plan.

 Health Warning Systems

The Government of India has designated specific agencies in various departments to monitor the risk of various disasters and setup early warning systems. These agencies such as Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment, IMD, Central Drought Relief Commissioner, Central Water Commission, Geological Survey of India, and Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services provide inputs to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which issues alerts and warnings to all concerned through various communication channels.

 National Disaster Management

Modern societies are not prepared for extreme disasters, which are beyond planning and design assumptions. However, the major disasters in recent past such as Tsunami and floods have spurred central and state Governments as well as other stakeholders in making responsive, reliable, and effective disaster management plans, with improved early warning systems and rapid dissemination of the disaster risk to the people using electronic media and modern technologies which have been helpful in minimizing the adverse impact of disasters on the affected community.


Disasters whether natural or anthropogenic are highly complex events resulting in mass sufferings due to immediate medical problems as well as long-term public health and psychological disruptions. The frequency and severity of disasters is increasing due to global warming, rising populations, deforestation, rapid urbanization, enhanced human conflicts, use of weapons of mass destruction, etc.

DRR and management entails coordinated preparedness and mitigation plans and their implementation at international, regional, national, and local levels by pooling of technology, resources, and rapid dissemination of early warnings to reduce the adverse impact of disasters on the affected populations.


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