How to fight natural disasters

A recent Asian Development Bank (ADB) study on drought management in China says the country has a stunningly agile disaster response system but not a corresponding system of risk reduction and management. In other words, China does not prepare for climate-related disasters; it only reacts to them.

This year, the government has been tackling two prolonged dry spells and the ongoing floods that have caused havoc in central and eastern parts of the country. The second spell of drought in the Yangtze River basin was followed by devastating floods.

At the height of the Yangtze basin drought, 3.5 million people suffered water shortage and cargo shipping was suspended on a 224-kilometer stretch in the middle and lower reaches of the river. The rain that followed came as a relief to people and the parched land in the Yangtze basin, but it also caused deadly landslides in parts of Guizhou and Hunan provinces. Torrential rain and floods have affected 13 provinces, killing almost 100 people and destroying about 27,000 houses.

The economic impact is only beginning to be assessed now that the early rice planting season is likely to be affected. The drought in the northern plains in 2000 was the worst in recent history and cost 47 billion yuan ($7.26 billion) in direct economic loss. The drought in Southwest China last year cost 1.4 billion yuan. In June 2010, 27 provinces were hit by floods that caused a direct economic loss of 142.2 billion yuan.

The costs of relief efforts are less well known, but they included hardship allowances, donations by Chinese citizens, and the cost of stabilizing food production and prices.

Such natural disasters will continue to plague the country because of three human and ecological factors. First, the Yangtze River delta region is climate sensitive, for it lies between subtropical and temperate climate zones. From 1951 to 1978, the region was hit by at least one flood or drought or both every two years. Droughts usually occurred in the mountainous areas of the region and floods in the plains.

Second, according to the national climate change assessment, global warming will increase the frequency of floods and droughts in the region. One of the most striking features of climate change is its impact on the monsoon, which has changed the precipitation pattern. The rainfall pattern in South China has changed, resulting in more floods and making the northern parts more vulnerable to droughts.

Third, ecological degradation has reduced the resilience of ecosystems against the impact of climate change and increased the risk of natural disasters. According to the State Forestry Administration's first large-scale national lake and wetlands survey, more than 1,000 natural lakes and wetlands have disappeared since 1949 and 1.3 million hectares of lake area have been reclaimed for agriculture or urban development.

The growing risk of floods in the central and lower Yangtze River region is partly because floodplains have been usurped for farming, increasing silt deposits in the river.

Natural hazards like droughts and floods cannot be prevented, but we can lessen the damage they cause. Most local governments seem to have missed the opportunity to guard against the impact of natural hazards. The lack of a comprehensive national policy requiring local governments to guard against natural hazards like droughts and floods has aggravated the situation.

Last year, the ADB completed two studies on drought and flood management for China, which said the country's drought management strategy is "stuck" in a reactive mode. China's flood and drought management strategies are similar. They react to emergencies and limit their response until after an emergency has been declared.

Greater risk assessment, proper monitoring and an early warning system would greatly reduce the response time and cost - and in turn reduce the damage and rebuilding costs.

China does not have a separate disaster risk management agency. Instead, risk management responsibilities are divided among several agencies, which are brought together through strong central control. The country thus "reacts" to natural hazards instead of focusing its policy and directing its resources to determine disaster cycles.

China's focus on disaster management should be extended to six-step risk management: early warning, monitoring and forecasting; risk assessment; risk mitigation; impact mitigation and emergency responses; recovery, evaluation and contingency planning; and stakeholder participation and public education and awareness.

An integrated approach is critical to creating reserves and enabling ecosystem service to function during droughts and floods and to devise long-term plans. A forthcoming joint publication by ADB, the Ministry of Water Resources and Guiyang city explores a "holistic pathway", using optimal infrastructure, risk management, ecosystem conservation and integrated river basin management.

In China, where climate change is creating unpredictable weather patterns - and thus more droughts and floods - regulating the services provided by ecosystems is important for adapting to climate change and reducing the risks of natural disasters. Examples of such services include climate and water regulation, protection from natural hazards, water and air purification, carbon sequestration, and disease and pest regulation.

If China does not focus its plans to reduce the risks and impact of natural disasters, droughts and floods will continue to cause even greater economic loss.