Disaster-risk resilience is crucial to protecting vulnerable communities

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30 Aug 19 - Source: Myanmar Times - The past five years have been the hottest on record in the Asia-Pacific. Unprecedented heatwaves have swept across the region, cascading into slow onset disasters such as drought.

Yet heat is only part of the picture. Tropical cyclones in new, unprepared parts of our region have caused devastatingly frequent floods. In Iran, these have affected 10 million people this year and displaced 500,000, half of them children. Bangladesh is experiencing its fourth wave of flooding. Last year, India's Kerala state faced its worst floods in a century.

This is the new climate reality in the Asia-Pacific, including Myanmar. The scale of economic losses forecast for the region is sobering. Average annual losses for disasters by 2030 are expected to quadruple to about US$675 billion (K1.02 quadrillion), or 2.4 percent of the region's GDP.

Economic losses of such magnitude will undermine economic growth and the region's efforts to reduce poverty and inequality, keeping children out of schools and adults of work. Basic health services will be undermined, crops destroyed and food security jeopardised. If we do not act now, Asia-Pacific's poorest communities will be among the worst affected.

Four areas of the region are particularly impacted, hotspots that combine vulnerability to climate change, poverty and disaster risk. In transboundary river basins in South Asia, such as the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river basin, floods alternate with prolonged drought. In Southeast, East and Northeast Asia, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides threaten poor populations in the Pacific Ring of Fire. Intensifying sand and dust storms blight East, Central and Southwest Asia. People in the Pacific Small Island Developing States are five times more at risk of disasters than those in South and Southeast Asia.

Many countries' sustainable development prospects are directly dependent on their exposure to natural disasters and their ability to build resilience. Yet this vicious cycle of poverty, inequality and disasters is not inevitable. It can be broken if an integrated approach is taken to investing in social and disaster-resilience policies. As disasters disproportionately affect the poor, building resilience must include investment in social protection as the most effective means of reducing poverty.

Conditional cash transfer systems can be particularly effective, as was shown in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Increasing pre-arranged risk finance and climate risk insurance is also crucial. While investments needed are significant, in most countries these are equivalent to less than half the costs forecast to result from natural disasters.

The use of technological innovations to protect the region from natural disasters must go hand in hand with these investments. Big data improve the readiness of our economies and our societies by revealing patterns and associations between complex disaster risks and predicting extreme weather and slow onset disasters. In countries affected by typhoons, big data applications can make early warning systems stronger and can contribute to saving lives and reducing damage.

China and India are leading the way in using technology to warn people of impending disasters, make their infrastructure more resilient, and deliver targeted assistance to affected people. Asia and the Pacific can learn from them, and multilateral cooperation is the way to give scale to our region's disaster-resilience effort. With this ambition in mind, representatives of countries across the region are meeting at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in Bangkok this week to explore regional responses to natural disasters.

Their focus will include strengthening the Asia-Pacific Disaster Resilience Network and capitalising on innovative technology applications to benefit the region. This is our opportunity to replicate successes, accelerate drought mitigation strategies, and develop a regional sand and dust storm alert system. I hope the region will seize it to protect vulnerable communities from disasters in every corner of the Asia-Pacific.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is executive secretary of ESCAP.


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