Making Asia and the Pacific Resilient to Disasters

Six months after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Central Philippines, ADB President Takehiko Nakao explains that natural disasters could slow Asia’s economic growth unless communities and governments get ready to address risks.

Three years ago, my homeland was blindsided by calamity. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan was a stark reminder of nature’s power and underscored the importance of being prepared for the next time disaster strikes. Of course, we all hope there won't be a next time. But here in Asia and the Pacific, we are alarmingly exposed. Our region has an outsized share - more than 50% - of the global disaster death toll, and accounts for more than three-quarters of the world’s damage bill due to natural hazards. In 2011, economic losses reached a staggering $260 billion, or more than 2% of GDP.

 

These frailties were brought home to me late last year when the Philippines was struck by Typhoon Haiyan. During a recent visit to Tacloban I witnessed the devastation caused by the typhoon, but also the resilient nature of Filipinos as they struggled with extreme adversity.

The challenge facing Asia and the Pacific is to create another kind of resilience - disaster resilience - at the national and regional level.

By disaster resilience, I mean the capacity of countries, communities, businesses and households not just to absorb shocks, but to anticipate them, thereby ensuring that they don’t jeopardize economic growth and development.

Disaster risks can never be eliminated entirely, but they can be significantly reduced. Since the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, progress has been made on several fronts, often using innovative approaches. Sophisticated early warning systems now crisscross the region alerting authorities to earthquakes and tsunamis. Advances in hazard mapping have raised public awareness about potential risks. New evacuation procedures, combined with better enforcement and greater public awareness, have reduced death tolls from disasters that would likely have killed many more only a few years earlier.

Moreover, the region has embraced a host of declarations and action plans for disaster risk management, including the world’s first legally binding agreement in the field - the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response. Disaster risk management legislation and coordinating agencies have been established across the region as awareness grows of the need for strengthened resilience.

“The region’s growth path can only be truly sustainable when the risks posed by disasters are reflected in the investment decisions taken by governments and communities.”

- Takehiko Nakao, ADB President

Yet, progress has lagged where it counts: embedding resilience into national development. The region’s growth path can only be truly sustainable when the risks posed by disasters are reflected in the investment decisions taken by governments and communities. The potential for an earthquake and tsunami, for example, to wipe out crucial public and private infrastructure should influence decisions on design and positioning. Jobs programs should include measures to diversify livelihoods so communities are not reliant on one vulnerable industry.

Environmental assessments can examine the impact of proposed investments on hazard vulnerability, like the effect of a new road on storm water drainage. The public sector needs to develop more efficient and effective ways of  delivering crucial services during relief, recovery and reconstruction efforts. A wide range of gaps and obstacles clouds that vision.

Disaster risk information is unreliable and patchy in some countries, and funding for risk reduction is similarly wanting across all levels of government. People with minimal understanding of development often staff national disaster management offices, while many local governments lack the expertise and capacity to integrate risks into their broader policies. Several countries lack appropriate institutional arrangements and clear mandates.

We need to close these gaps quickly. A good start would be to promote the use of risk maps to identify hazard-prone areas, and follow up with risk sensitive land use plans. We could also make better use of disaster risk financing tools like insurance and reinsurance, which can cushion communities from the financial impact of calamity.

Any blueprint for action must also deal squarely with climate change, which is increasing our exposure to natural hazards in unpredictable ways. Extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent and intense as climate change unfolds. Several of the region’s countries are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, and many of its urban centers are located in hazard-prone areas such as coasts and floodplains. Urban congestion means the poor often live in settlements offering little protection from the elements.

With Asia's urban population expected to double to 3 billion people by 2050, it is imperative to build climate resilience into development projects. Climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction should go hand in hand, as they do in Tajikistan where ADB is working with the national government on a system to store and share data on climate-related disaster risks. Unfortunately, climate risks remain largely unaudited across the region, with fewer than 20% of our cities having conducted climate risk assessments. We must do better. Our region faces a future of frequent and severe natural hazards. But if we act quickly, and we act together, there’s nothing inevitable about the losses that may accompany them.

This article was originally published in ADB's Development Asia magazine May 2014 issue with the title "Investing in Resilience".