Upping the game on disaster preparedness

Published on Monday, 22 April 2013

Published by Vinod Thomas on Monday, 22 April 2013

Natural disasters in Asia and the Pacific. <a href="http://blogs.adb.org/sites/default/files/blog-natural-disasters-asia-pacific.jpg">View infographic in full.</a>
Natural disasters in Asia and the Pacific. View infographic in full.

The human and economic toll from natural disasters since global leaders met at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 has been staggering. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction estimates that natural disasters caused 1.3 million deaths and $2 trillion in economic damage worldwide since then. In the past two years alone, headline disasters included the Tohoku and Christchurch earthquakes, the massive flooding in Bangkok and Beijing, the deadly storms in the southern Philippines, and super storm Sandy in the United States. 

Many of these disasters hit densely populated areas. And these will be at increasing risk as they expand and become more concentrated unless there is a far greater focus on disaster prevention involving mitigation and adaption.

By 2020, half of Asia’s population is expected to live in cities. Thirty years ago, Tokyo and New York were the world’s only megacities (with populations of over 10 million). In 2011 there were 23 megacities, 13 of them in Asia—and flooding is by far the greatest natural hazard that they face. 

Typhoon Ketsana in September 2009— which dumped more rain on Manila in a matter of hours than would have been normal in a month for that time of year—was a particularly shocking example of an extreme hydrometerological event hitting a city. In January, Jakarta was at the sharp end, with pounding rains bringing the city to a standstill. Of the world’s top ten most populous cities with the highest risk of flooding, five are in Asia: Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai, Dhaka, and Kolkata. All of the world’s top ten most populous cities with the highest risk of being hit by cyclones are in Asia. 

The evidence linking climate change to the increasing incidence of intense storms and floods is becoming increasingly compelling. So failing to integrate mitigation and adaption in national programs for dealing with natural disasters seems reckless given our clearer understanding of why these events are happening more frequently and with greater severity. But many countries in the region still do not have adequate and sustained disaster risk reduction programs, and they focus more on relief and recovery.

With Asian cities contributing to 70% of the region’s GDP, natural disasters striking cities have the potential to heavily cut into economic growth. It’s estimated that the floods that submerged Bangkok and other parts of Thailand in 2011 caused economic losses of close to $46 billion and caused the country’s GDP to contract 9%. Imagine, then, the impact of three such floods in a year in the sub region and the potential for regional contagion.

People and communities across all income strata don’t have to be helpless victims of natural disasters, as recent experiences of how preparedness and responses to recent calamities show. Early warning systems and disaster awareness in the school curriculum saved untold lives during the Tohoku earthquake. Garbage-clogged drainage canals were a major factor impeding the runoff of typhoon Ketsana’s rainfall in Manila. Since then, several local communities with the help of NGOs and the private sector have cleaned up these canals in highly successful greening programs, such as the one at Estero de Paco.

Governments across the region still deal with natural disasters after they strike, rather than confronting them with a dual approach of disaster prevention and recovery. This means that disaster prevention and mitigation will need to be significantly scaled up in developing Asia and Pacific. Governments striving for fiscal rectitude will undoubtedly face funding constraints, especially for big-ticket infrastructure projects needed to make their cities more resilient. But the cost of not upping the game in disaster preparedness will be a slower pace of social and economic progress across a region in the decades to come.