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Natural disasters in Asia
Tuesday, 17 July 2012 01:36

Japan's triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis) of 11 March 2011 provided a harsh reminder that no country is without risk of being hit by natural disasters which wreak havoc without discrimination, wiping out homes, livelihoods, a country's economic gains, and often many individual lives. 

In fact, Asia is the world's most disaster-prone region, and Asia's poor, lacking in resources and more vulnerable and exposed to the elements, have borne the brunt of the region's cataclysms,

Natural disasters can strike anywhere, reports the Asian Development Bank.  However, Asia's poor and those living in poor countries with weak governance and economies get hit the most.  The poor tend to live in more exposed areas and have vulnerable livelihoods and few resources to fall back on.  A major disaster can derail a small, weak economy for decades, and weak governance can impede risk reduction.  Looking ahead, as climate change shifts patterns in weather-related disasters, the poor and economically vulnerable will suffer a great proportion of risk.

Here is the deadly math of natural disasters in Asia.  The region occupies 30% of the world's land mass, but 40% of the world's disasters occurred in the region in the past decade, resulting in a disproportionate 80% of the world's disaster deaths.  In China, for example, 2.7% of annual GDP is lost to disasters, while poorer countries, particularly small islands with economies focused on one sector like tourism or a single crop, can see a 10-15% decline in GDP from a single disaster.

Almost half the deaths from natural disasters in Asia during the last 10 years were due to earthquakes and tsunamis, although they only accounted for 12% of the natural disaster events.  Drought and food insecurity were responsible for about one-third of deaths.

More than 2,200 natural disasters struck Asia in the past 20 years, claiming close to one million lives, with the following six mega-disasters accounting for three-quarters of fatalities: Japan's 2011 earthquake/tsunami (over 200,000 deaths), the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (more than 200,000 deaths), Myanmar's 2008 Cyclone Nargis (140,000 deaths), Bangldesh's Cyclone Gorky in 1991 (140,000 deaths), China's 2008 earthquake (90,000 deaths), and Pakistan's 2005 earthquake (75,000 deaths). 

Perhaps due to global warming, the number of weather-related disasters around the world has jumped to 350 annually over the past decade from 200 per year in the 1990s.  The share of the global economy at direct risk from floods has doubled since 1990, and Asia is home to 75% of the world's at-risk population for floods.

Obviously, we cannot physically stop the occurrence of natural disasters.  But how can we reduce risk?  In short, by following page 54 of the Boy Scout Handbook: "Be Prepared"! 

But while global humanitarian assistance was $16.9 billion in 2008 ($12.8 billion from governments and $4.1 billion from private funding), regrettably only 0.7% was devoted to prevention, even though every dollar spent on risk reduction can save $7 in economic losses from disasters.  A major problem is that spending on disaster prevention is not "sexy" for politicians and international leaders, while arriving in force when a disaster occurs is good PR thanks to the CNN effect.  

The ADB proposes three lines of very useful action.

First, we need to reduce populations exposure to natural disasters by: accelerating infrastructure improvements to keep up with ballooning urban populations; providing realistic alternatives to those living in high-risk areas; and protecting and restoring ecosystems that buffer the impact of natural disasters.  Billions of poor Asians have settled in mega-slums that often lack vital protective measures such as enforced building codes and drainage canals.    

Second, we need to exploit early warnings by: ensuring that warnings reach individuals; developing flexible systems ranging from global monitoring, regional, and national preparation to local emergency action; and customizing wording of warnings and methods used for local communities. 

For national and international disaster management and mitigation agencies, space-based technology now plays a vital role.  Government officials had been discussing an Indian Ocean early warning system since the late 1970s, but dithered.  In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, however, the system was up and running within 18th months.  

Some inspiring cases of early warnings are the following.  As Cyclone Sidr came rolling in from the bay of Bengal in 2007, 40,000 volunteers pedaled bicycles through neighborhoods spreading the word with bullhorns -- they helped evacuate 3.2 million people.  In some parts of the Philippines, villagers warn of approaching typhoons with everything from cell phone text messages to traditional bamboo clappers known as tala-tala.

Third, we need to strengthen resilience by: expanding income options in rural areas, such as by reducing reliance on a single crop; encouraging regional cooperation that helps stricken economies recover; and protecting and restoring ecosystems that provide and enhance the livelihood of rural populations.

One of the great lessons of a study of tsunami relief is that it is local communities -- rather than the national or international communities -- are the quickest to provide the most valuable  practical immediate assistance following a great disaster.  Much greater priority needs to be given to strengthening local preparedness rather than funding delayed responses after the event.

With extreme weather conditions attributed to climate change increasing in frequency and complexity worldwide, and increasingly vulnerable populations in low-lying urban settlements, it is time to learn all the lessons possible for dealing with a more disastrous future.


Asian Development Bank.  Development Asia, "Dealing with Disasters".  January--March 2011



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