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Explained: Delhi diplomacy to fight disaster

At climate summit in New York, PM Modi pushed the global Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure. As world observes International Day for Disaster Reduction, a look at the initiative India has taken

Written by Amitabh Sinha | Pune | Updated: October 12, 2019 10:20:58 am
Climate change, Climate Action, Climate Change summit, PM Modi on climate change, PM Modi on climate change action, Express Explained, Indian Express The Biju Patnaik International Airport in Bhubaneswar during Cyclone Fani earlier this year. The World Bank estimates the damage caused by Fani at billion. (ANI Photo)

While speaking at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in New York on September 23, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the launch of the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) and invited all countries to join it. Ahead of International Day for Disaster Reduction on Sunday, a look at what CDRI is.

What it proposes to do

Envisaged as an international knowledge platform where countries can collaborate to make their existing and new infrastructure strong enough to withstand natural disasters, CDRI is the fruition of at least three years of discussions that India has had with more than 40 countries on this subject.

In simple terms, CDRI is an attempt to bring countries together to share and learn from the experiences of one another to protect their key infrastructure — highways, railways, power stations, communication lines, water channels, even housing — against disasters.

Need to protect infrastructure

Many countries, including India, have over the years developed robust disaster management practices that have helped in sharply reducing human casualties in a disaster. However, the economic costs of a disaster remain huge, mainly due to the damage caused to big infrastructure.

According to a recent estimate by the World Bank, Cyclone Fani, which hit Odisha in May this year, caused damage to the tune of $4 billion. The losses in the Kerala floods last year could be in excess of $4.4 billion, according to a post-disaster needs assessment report by the state government. In the US, there were 10 climate change disasters this year in which losses exceeded S1 billion.

Much of the developing world is still building its basic infrastructure. Many developed countries are also in the process of replacing old infrastructure that have completed their lifetimes. Future infrastructure needs to take into account the heightened risks arising out of the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and other adverse impacts of climate change. Even existing infrastructure would need to be retrofitted to make them more resilient. Disaster-proofing a project would involve changes in design, and use of newer technologies. These involve additional costs which, however, are only a fraction of the losses that a disaster can bring.

“We have pretty good evidence to show that wherever we have made investments in making infrastructure more resilient, over a period of time that investment has basically paid for itself,” said Kamal Kishore, member of National Disaster Management Authority. The NDMA is operating as the interim secretariat of CDRI as of now.

An international forum

Disaster preparedness and infrastructure creation are largely national endeavours. However, modern infrastructure is also a web of networked systems, not always confined to national boundaries. There are increasing numbers of trans-national and trans-continental highways and railways; transmission lines carry electricity across countries; assets on a river are shared. Damage to any one node can have cascading impacts on the entire network, resulting in loss of livelihoods and disruption in economic activity in places far away from the site of a disaster.

To make entire networks resilient is the main thought behind the Indian initiative of CDRI. The platform is not meant to plan or execute infrastructure projects. Nor is it an agency that will finance infrastructure projects in member countries. Instead, CDRI will seek to identify and promote best practices, provide access to capacity building, and work towards standardisation of designs, processes and regulations relating to infrastructure creation and management. It would also attempt to identify and estimate the risks to, and from, large infrastructure in the event of different kinds of disasters in member countries.

CDRI hopes to have as its members not just countries, but organisations like UN bodies, financial institutions, and other groups working on disaster management. It seeks to help member countries integrate disaster management policies in all their activities, set up institutions and regulatory provisions to ensure creation of resilient infrastructure, and identify and use affordable finance and technology.

CDRI and Belt Road Initiative

CDRI has sometimes been seen as India’s response to the Belt Road Initiative, China’s ongoing multi-billion-dollar programme to recreate the ancient Silk Route trading links. China is building massive new land and maritime infrastructure in several countries. India and some other nations view this as an attempt by China to use its economic and military heft to usurp strategic assets in other countries.

Though the comparisons are not surprising given the competing strategic interests of the two neighbours, the magnitude and purpose of the two initiatives are starkly different. Unlike BRI, CDRI is not an attempt by India to create or fund infrastructure projects in other countries. Having said that, international initiatives like these are not without any strategic or diplomatic objective.

CDRI and Solar Alliance

A more relevant comparison of CDRI can, however, be made with the International Solar Alliance (ISA) that India launched at the climate meeting in Paris in 2015. ISA, which has evolved into a treaty-based organisation with more than 50 countries already signed up, aims at a collective effort to promote the deployment of solar energy across the world. Its objective is to mobilise more than $1 trillion into solar power by 2030, and to deploy over 1,000 GW of solar generation capacity in member countries by that time. India hosts ISA, with its headquarters in Gurgaon.

The CDRI secretariat too would be based in New Delhi. While it is not envisioned to take the shape of a treaty-based organisation, CDRI can be seen as complementing ISA’s efforts. ISA is about climate change mitigation — deployment of more solar energy would bring down the reliance on fossil fuels, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. CDRI, on the other hand, is about adapting to climate change, a need that is inevitable.

With these two initiatives, India is seeking to obtain a leadership role, globally, in matters related to climate change.

Kishore of NDMA stressed, however, that CDRI is more than just a climate change initiative. “It does not matter whether the infrastructure is risk from climate-induced disasters or those taking place due to geophysical reasons, like earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides or tsunamis. The infrastructure needs to be strengthened to cope with all these,” he said.

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