Preparing better for more frequent natural disasters

Imagine three typhoons with the force of Tropical Storm “Ondoy” hitting the National Capital Region in a single rainy season, or Mindanao, which until recently was thought to be largely off the path of extreme storms. Such a scenario would have seemed wildly alarmist just a decade ago, but not any longer.

Intense hydro-meteorological events are becoming more frequent globally. Their incidence rose fivefold during 2001-2010 compared with 1971-1980, with Asia and the Pacific bearing the brunt. People living in the region are four times more likely to be affected by natural disasters than in Africa, and 25 times more than in North America or Europe.

Recognizing that natural disasters are becoming increasingly endemic in Asia and the Pacific will be crucial for the region’s continued economic success. Multilateral development banks, aware that disasters can turn back years of progress, are urging governments to incorporate disaster preparedness and adaptation in their national plans and to step up investment in these areas.

The stakes are particularly high for the Philippines. The economy finally seems to be heading for strong and sustained growth—during a global slump, no less—and the government has set ambitious poverty-reduction goals for the next three years.

It would be disastrous indeed if those plans were blown off course. Yet the Philippines, along with Vietnam and Bangladesh, is most at risk in the region from multiple natural hazards.

The theme of July, the National Disaster Consciousness Month—“Safe Country, Prosperous Communities”—was therefore well-chosen. It stresses that effective disaster risk management is everyone’s concern and it involves all stakeholders, from the central and local governments to barangays and their residents.

One reason floods are becoming more destructive and life-threatening is greater exposure from more people living in harm’s way along waterways or in low-lying areas. Poverty and a lack of opportunity in many rural areas have intensified this trend in urban settings.

A second, related cause is people’s increasing vulnerability to hazards of nature, including from environmental degradation. And a third factor also seems to be responsible: manmade climate change.  A single country on its own may not make a dent in climate change, but it can address people’s exposure and vulnerability to hazards of nature.

That is why the development community is closely watching the government’s plan to use rent subsidies to persuade nearly 20,000 families to move away from eight waterways crucial for flood drainage in metropolitan Manila. Including these families in social protection programs, if they qualify, could be an added inducement. But persuading informal settlers to relocate has proved tough in the past—hence the spotlight on this effort.

At the grassroots level, there is far less complacency and vacillation since Ondoy struck the Philippines’ economic heartland in September 2009. More recently, the depredations in the south caused by Tropical Storm “Sendong” and Typhoon “Pablo” demonstrate that the entire country is now more exposed to highly destructive storms. Both lessons came at a horrendous price.

Disaster awareness, weather forecasting, hazard mapping and early warning systems are improving for the most part. On the latter, a tablet computer recently developed by the Department of Science and Technology to provide barangay leaders with real-time weather and hazard information could become a critical decision-making tool for communities faced with approaching danger if produced in sufficient numbers.

Significant investment is needed to improve resilience to disasters. Drainage systems in urban centers, many in a deplorable state due to years of neglect and underinvestment, need rehabilitating and water-carrying capacities expanded to cope with rising populations.

The continuity of disaster-risk policies beyond the present administration will be essential for realizing the goals of longer-term projects under the flood control master plan for metropolitan Manila announced last year by the Department of Public Works and Highways.

With cities typically contributing about 70 percent of Asia’s gross domestic product, it’s not hard to see the impact on economic growth of more frequent and severe storms. It’s already happening: The storms that submerged Bangkok and other parts of Thailand in 2011 caused economic losses estimated at $46 billion and caused the country’s GDP to contract 9 percent in the fourth quarter of that year.

At the end of the day, failure to up the game in disaster-risk management will slow the pace of economic growth and social progress in the years ahead.