Asia can show the way in building disaster resilience

Friday, 20 June 2014 08:30 GMT

A man carries a girl on his back as he wades through a flooded street after heavy rainfall in Changsha, Hunan province, China, June 20, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

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In Asia, battered by 80 percent of the world’s disasters, lives are being saved but economic costs are rising

Next week, 2,500 delegates from more than 39 countries in Asia and the Pacific are expected in Bangkok, Thailand, for the Sixth Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, to shape future efforts to build more resilient communities and nations.

The outcome of the meeting will have long-term significance for the world at large, as the recommendations will feed into a new global agreement on disaster risk reduction which will replace the current Hyogo Framework for Action, adopted in 2005 by all U.N. member States following the Indian Ocean tsunami.

When Asia speaks on disaster risk management, the rest of the world listens. The region suffers more than 80 percent of the world’s disaster events.

Nine of the world’s 10 most significant disaster events last year by fatalities occurred in the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Japan and China. Some 14,500 lives were lost in tropical cyclones, floods, heat waves, cold waves and earthquakes.

Reported economic losses totalling $50 billion accrued in China, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Australia and Pakistan last year.  And the overwhelming majority of the 95 million people whose lives were disrupted by disasters worldwide last year live in the region.

It could have been a lot worse. Untold thousands of lives are being saved every year, particularly in weather-related disasters, as early warning systems, better disaster preparedness, and more efficient response systems are now in place across much of the region.

Cyclone Phailin would have claimed many lives last October, were it not for the largest peace-time evacuation in India’s history, when a million people were moved out of harm’s way before the category-5 cyclone made landfall. In 1999, when a similar event occurred, some 10,000 people died in Odisha state.

Even though Cyclone Haiyan claimed 6,200 lives when it struck the Philippines last November, many more were spared because of evacuations and early warnings, particularly in the province of Cebu.


The learning from the last nine years of implementing the Hyogo Framework for Action across the region tells us that while much progress has been made when it comes to reducing the risk of fatalities in the event of a disaster, countries still struggle when it comes to tackling the causes of risk creation and economic losses.

Many countries are forced to spend far too much of their budgets on disaster response, meeting the emergency needs of affected people and, in the longer term,  repairing roads, schools, health facilities and critical infrastructure which should have been disaster-proof in the first place.

If a percentage of response and recovery money were invested wisely in urban planning and land use to reduce the population’s exposure to risk, then the long-term savings would be significant. For every $1 invested in disaster risk reduction, the long-term savings are at least $4 to $8 - more money that can be spent on education, health and job creation. 

Disaster risk is a combined result of hazard, exposure and vulnerability. Any improvements in reducing vulnerability, through poverty reduction programmes for example, have been insufficient to offset the very rapid increase in exposure across Asia and the Pacific, fuelled by population growth, urbanisation and economic development.

Many countries in the region have responded to major loss of life by making striking paradigm shifts in how they manage disaster risk. Bangladesh has one of the best cyclone preparedness programmes today, having lost hundreds of thousands of lives in the past.

Indonesia has made disaster risk reduction a pillar of its national development policy after the Asian tsunami. The Philippines is developing more sophisticated methods of gauging the impact of cyclones following Haiyan.


A similar revolution now needs to take place in managing disaster risk across the public and private sectors in order to stop the haemorrhaging of assets and wealth caused by disasters.

The 2011 floods in Thailand cost the equivalent of 5 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while the economic losses from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami were estimated to equal 4 percent of GDP. In low-income and small island states, the impact can be worth more than 100 percent of GDP.

There are encouraging signs that the business community across Asia is alert to the issue. Just last week in Manila, one of the region’s most respected developers, Hans Sy, said: “We need to bridge the gap in understanding, and convince business owners of the need to move beyond basic continuity planning and to consider the opportunity to create value in markets with products that address disaster risk and the important role of public-private sector partnership in disaster recovery.” 

Reducing economic losses will be a significant part of the great debate we expect to have in Bangkok next week. The ripples from that debate will be felt beyond the recommendations for a new framework for disaster risk reduction, across the whole post-2015 development agenda which includes new sustainable development goals, and a universally accepted agreement on climate change.

No region is better placed to ensure that astute disaster risk management is a visible thread running through it all.

Margareta Wahlstrom is head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and a Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General