Asia-Pacific's vulnerability to climate change

THE jury may still be out on the link between climate change and natural disasters. But one thing is clear: weather-related disasters are increasing in both frequency and intensity.

Witness the string of severe recent floods across Asia - from Pakistan to Thailand to the Philippines - and super storm Sandy in the US, which have vividly shown us how extreme weather events can bring entire countries to a virtual standstill.

Volatile weather extremes are hitting the Asia-Pacific more often than any other region of the world. This gives the Asia-Pacific region a huge stake in mitigating global temperature rise while adapting to already rising climate change impacts.

Sixty per cent of the region's people rely on highly climate-sensitive farms, forests and fisheries for their livelihoods. Seven out of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change and disasters caused by natural hazards are in the Asia-Pacific. A decrease in fresh water availability could affect more than one billion Asian people by 2050.

The region has borne the brunt of the physical and economic damage of increased disasters. It accounted for 38 per cent of global disaster-related economic losses between 1980 and 2009. People in Asia and the Pacific are four times more likely to be affected by disasters than those in Africa, and 25 times more likely than in Europe or North America.

A recent report of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) noted that storms and floods, in particular, are becoming endemic to the region, and their increasing frequency and severity can slash economic growth and development. Time and again, it is the poorest and most vulnerable citizens who suffer the most. One cannot hope to bring an end to poverty without building resilience to climate change and these associated events. The challenge is to tackle both at the same time. The global community needs to mobilise massive funds for climate change adaptation - around US$40 billion (S$49 billion) a year for the Asia-Pacific would be a very conservative estimate.

Investing in disaster risk reduction as part of adaptation only makes sense; it has been estimated that every dollar spent to reduce risk saves at least US$4 in future relief and rehabilitation costs.

Clearly there is a need to more closely integrate climate change and disaster-related activities. Doing so would present its own challenges, given the different - sometimes competing - interests involved: disaster risk reduction is a well-established area of work handled mainly by engineers, whereas climate change adaptation is relatively new and falls more within the purview of environmental specialists. Nonetheless, the global community should make every effort possible to do what is most prudent and effective.

The Climate Investment Funds (CIF) have endorsed US$1.5 billion to the ADB for mitigation and adaptation co-financing within Asia and the Pacific. The CIF's pilot programme for climate resilience has thus far allocated US$278 million to the ADB for projects in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Tajikistan, Tonga, and the Pacific regionally.

Much can be done to supplement these efforts. The region needs, for example, an Asia-Pacific disaster risk insurance scheme, and it would benefit from the wider introduction of catastrophe bonds.

Such innovative forms of insurance can increase resilience by forcing communities to model, price and manage the risks of climate change.

A climate-induced disaster fund for the region that would channel critically needed post-disaster assistance into building resilience against future catastrophic events should also be considered.

So far, few developing Asian countries have focused on disaster risks in their economic development plans. As a region, Asians no longer have a choice. They must invest in disaster prevention - not only in infrastructure, but also in the region's social development.

Neglecting the looming threats of increased weather-related disasters would put millions of Asia's most vulnerable people at increased risk of poverty, ill health and premature death.

As delegates gather for the 18th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Doha, Qatar, this issue must be brought to the forefront through enhanced discussion, consideration of innovative solutions, and commitments to act.

The Asia-Pacific region has a critical role to play in reaching a solution to the climate crisis. Its population and economies face ever-increasing risks from the consequences of climate change, and future economic growth must be decoupled from the rapid expansion of greenhouse gas emissions.

The impacts are felt at a very personal and local level, and it is critical that Asians create, invest in, and act upon solutions to improve the resilience of communities across Asia and the Pacific. However, this is a global problem, which will require a global solution involving the full participation of all countries.