Spike in climate-related disasters

The frequency and severity of natural disasters are on the rise worldwide, with Pacific countries experiencing some of the most damaging ones in recent decades. The importance of disaster risk management and the part played by climate change are now increasingly being recognized on the global and national stages.

The crucial question, however, is what it will take for timely action to follow.

From the perspective of the international development community, President Christopher Loeak’s call for climate action to top the agenda of the 44th Pacific Islands Forum should raise the sense of urgency among representatives from developing and developed countries attending. The summit offers a significant opportunity to make progress on a “new wave of climate leadership,” to use Minister Tony deBrum’s memorable phrase on the need for better disaster preparedness after severe flooding in June.

The vital issues for decision makers are how climate and natural disasters are connected and how this link affects economic growth prospects. A major concern right now is that the precarious state of the global economy will weaken resolve to act on climate change.

Developing countries are aware that they still need to engineer strong economic growth. While growth in many countries in Asia and the Pacific may have been relatively strong, the pace has noticeably slowed compared with the decade before 2008’s global economic crisis, and the projections are highly mixed.

The Pacific Islands are among the most at risk from multiple natural hazards, including rising temperatures and sea levels and changing rainfall patterns. And given the rising frequency of natural disasters, it is not farfetched to imagine more than one extreme tropical cyclone hitting in a single rainy season. So the needed change in the mindset is to stop seeing climate action as an impediment to growth, but rather as the means whereby growth might continue.

According to the Australian Pacific Climate Change Science Program, parts of the western Pacific have experienced the world’s fastest sea-level rise, at 10 millimeters a year, and this is expected to continue. The World Bank, meanwhile, estimates average annual direct losses in the Pacific from natural disaster events at $284 million.

The declaration in May this year of a state of disaster in the Marshall Islands vividly underscores the dangers. After an unprecedented drought across its northern atolls, many people were left without enough food and water. Later, a king tide and rising seas topped the seawalls in Majuro, flooding many homes and forcing the closure of the country’s main airport.

Evidence is mounting to suggest a connection between increasing natural disasters and man-made emissions.

For policy makers, the implications are three-fold. First, disaster prevention needs to become an integral part of development strategies. Building of sea walls and mangroves to protect coastlines are valuable investments.

Second, climate adaptation must become a crucial dimension in disaster prevention, including climate proofing of infrastructure and the application of climate resilient livestock and crops. People need to move out of harm’s way, for example in coastal communities, low-lying areas or waterways vital for flood drainage.

Third, even if no single country can make the difference, climate mitigation —reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — is essential to confronting the rising trend in climate-related disasters. It is not enough for us to mop the floor; we also need to turn off the source. This calls for leadership and decisive action worldwide to reduce emissions.