Asia's exposure to disasters rising fast - UN

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 23 October 2012 10:18 GMT
Some 185 million people are threatened by annual flooding and storms, with the poorest bearing the brunt of losses, says report

LONDON (AlertNet) - Some 185 million people are exposed to annual flooding and storms in Asia-Pacific, a figure that has mushroomed in the past four decades due to economic growth and expanding urban populations, a U.N. report said on Tuesday.

The Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2012 found that, from 1970 to 2010, the average number of people at risk from yearly flooding in the region more than doubled from 29.5 million to 63.8 million, and the number living in cyclone-prone areas has grown from 71.8 million to 120.7 million.

The region is the most severely affected by disasters, which killed almost 2 million people between 1970 and 2011. Those deaths represented 75 percent of all disaster fatalities globally.

Disaster risks are increasing as more people and economic assets are put in harm's way, and the most vulnerable groups find themselves increasingly unable to cope, according to the assessment of disasters published by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

"Exposure to disaster risk is growing faster than our ability to build resilience and Asia's rapid economic growth is partly responsible for it," UNISDR head Margareta Wahlström said in a statement.

"This was very obvious during the floods which plagued much of the region last year. Of course, the challenge is not to stop development, but to arrest both the growing rate of exposure and rising vulnerability," she added.

The region experienced major disasters with devastating impacts in 2011, including Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis, and the floods that hit Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. Economic losses hit a staggering $294 billion, with Asia-Pacific suffering 80 percent of global losses from disasters last year.

The Asia-Pacific region accounts for more than 85 percent of global economic exposure to tropical cyclones, and economic exposure to floods in East and Northeast Asia has increased ten-fold in the past 40 years, the report noted.

"These facts point to a pattern of recent growth where most new development in the region has been along coastlines and in flood plains, locations highly exposed to natural hazards," the report observed.


When disasters strike, small farmers, micro-enterprises and poor households bear the brunt of the costs in many developing countries, the report showed.

In 2009, Typhoon Ketsana caused $58 million worth of damage in Laos, half of it to small farmers. In the Philippines, the same storm brought losses of $4.3 billion - 90 percent of them borne by poor urban households. And 70 percent of the $9.7 billion in flood damage in Pakistan in 2010 was suffered by poor households and small farmers, the report said.

The cumulative impact of smaller disasters can be at least as detrimental as a large event in some countries, it added. Mortality and property losses are rising in Laos, Indonesia, Iran and Nepal because of small- and medium-scale disasters, for example.

"It is... a concern that smaller economies, those that have less diversified economic structures, and countries with high fiscal deficits, show greater strains of vulnerability even when faced with relatively small-scale disasters," said Noeleen Heyzer, ESCAP's executive secretary.

The report highlighted the inadequacy of existing policies to protect people and economic assets from disasters.

"Land use and urban planning, ecosystem management and disaster recovery - the very tools devised to deal with exposure to risks - are not yielding the desired results," Heyzer and Wahlström wrote in a foreword to the report.

Nonetheless, there are some positive examples. Bangladesh's investment of more than $10 billion in the past 35 years in disaster risk reduction has lowered that country’s losses from extreme weather. And China is implementing a 2011-2015 disaster plan that aims to reduce annual disaster losses to below 1.5 percent of GDP through investment measures across government sectors.

But only a handful of countries in the region are making a substantial effort, the report said.

It calls for better land-use planning and management of supply chains to keep people and assets out of danger, as well as social safety nets for the most vulnerable. Innovative technologies, including satellite monitoring and internet applications, can also be vital in warning people of hazards and monitoring their impacts.

More widely, governments should focus on development policies that reduce communities' exposure to hazards and build their resilience, it said.

"The disasters of the past two years have defined the consequences of failing to fully apply the combined tenets of disaster risk reduction and sustainable development - it is now time to act," Heyzer and Wahlström urged.


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