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Tackling the Ripple Effects of Disasters in Asia - Yasuyuki Sawada

Op-Ed / Opinion | 7 June 2019

Climate change is causing more frequent and more intense natural hazards. Meanwhile, rapid social and economic progress in Asia and the Pacific is making the region more vulnerable than ever. Recovery can be swift but the indirect effects of disaster can ripple out for years, if not decades, and to other places. 

Without preventative action, the human and economic costs of disasters will soar. The toll is already enormous. Developing Asia accounted for almost 55% of the 60,000 disaster fatalities worldwide between 2000 and 2018 and damage to physical assets cost the region at least $644 billion. 

Though economies typically bounce back within a year, the impacts of even less severe disasters can last much longer. Recurrent urban flooding, landslides, or storms often go unrecorded but, by regularly wiping out homes and livelihoods, they trap affected families in poverty and worsen inequality compared with families in less exposed areas.

Typhoons have been linked to higher infant mortality among baby girls up to two years later, children who lost parents to disasters spend less time in school as they assume parenting duties, and lower nutrition during lean drought years can lead to low-weight new-borns or stunting. 

Disaster impacts can also transmit far beyond the disaster epicenter though temporary migration or resettlement. Rural populations fleeing to cities after floods or droughts can cause social disorder or conflict. Displaced populations can find themselves exposed to other hazards, such as epidemics, that they could have avoided at home. 

Disruptions to global value chains mean disaster impacts also reverberate beyond the affected area as suppliers are unable to deliver crucial intermediate goods to buyers elsewhere in the country or abroad. 

The Japan earthquake and tsunami and the flooding in Thailand in 2011 caused local production stoppages, forcing firms in the US and Europe that relied on the Japanese or Thai goods to also slow production. Cracks in the supply chain are estimated to have caused a 1.2% decline in Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP) in the year after the earthquake.

How can Asia and the Pacific best protect itself against this human and economic toll? 

Certainly, considerable progress has been made to mitigate impacts such as through restoring mangrove forests or building cyclone shelters. The introduction of comprehensive disaster risk financing and insurance strategies, such as those in the Philippines and Indonesia, have also helped. 

But more needs to be done. Currently, developing countries spend roughly seven times as much on disaster response than on disaster prevention. 

The most urgent need is for more investment in disaster and climate-resilient infrastructure. According to an ADB study, developing Asia needs to spend around $26 trillion on infrastructure between 2016 and 2030. Building resilience into the design from the start avoids further exposure to disaster risk in the future. It also entails limiting development in the most risky areas such as along exposed shores and, instead, building inland. 

Building back better after disaster strikes is another way to build disaster resilience. The May 2008 Sichuan earthquake caused an estimated RMB1 trillion of damage to buildings,transport, power, water and communications networks, nearly equal to the annual GDP of Sichuan Province, and a sizeable 3.9% of China’s national GDP in 2007. However, massive government spending in the following years on improved reconstruction not only kept the national economy humming but also put Sichuan in a better position to withstand any future tremors.

Spending more on disaster resilience unlocks multiple dividends even when disasters do not strike by unleashing untapped development potential and broader co-benefits. For one, proper waste management keeps water ways clear when flooding looms but also continuously cuts health risks from improper waste disposal. Early warning systems and weather boards allow citizens to prepare for an impending hazard but, in normal times, can be used to make better decisions about when to sow crops or start construction. Evacuation centers shelter citizens from typhoons or storms and act as classrooms or community centers when the weather is good.

Preparing better for disasters will insulate countries from their insidious ripple effects and make life easier when threats are low. It will help in the immediate term and provide benefits to future generations too.