By Wichit Chaitrong
The relentless sequence of natural disasters in Asia and the Pacific in the past two years was beyond what the region had previously experienced or was able to predict, and this is a sign of things to come in a new climate reality, according to the latest report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap).
The Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2019 released in Bangkok on Thursday reveals that recent disasters, especially those triggered by climate change and environmental degradation, have deviated from their usual tracks and are growing in intensity, frequency and complexity. It is now more difficult to determine which areas should prepare for what kind of disaster.
Vulnerable and marginalised communities are among the hardest hit by disasters in the region.
Almost 40 per cent of disaster impacts result in deeper inequalities of opportunity that are transmitted over generations. Disasters are also set to slow down poverty reduction. Furthermore, the number of people living in extreme poverty – under $1.90 (Bt58) a day – is projected to be 56 million by 2030. However, with unmitigated disaster risk, this number more than doubles to 123 million.
Thais living in the northeast are also vulnerable, according to the report.
“However, this is not inevitable,” said United Nations Under-Secretary-General and executive secretary of Escap Armida Alisjahbana at the release of the report in Bangkok. “Governments can break this vicious cycle by investing to outpace disaster risk, and the report shows that investments will be far smaller than the damage and losses from unmitigated disasters. Moreover, these same investments will deliver co-benefits – in the form of better education, health, social and infrastructure services, and higher agricultural production and incomes.”
In 2018, almost half of the 281 natural disaster events worldwide occurred in the Asia-Pacific region, including eight out of the ten deadliest. An average of 142 million people in the area have been affected annually since 1970, well above the global average of 38 million, the report says.
For the first time, the report includes the costs of slow-onset disasters, notably drought, which results in a quadrupling of annual economic losses as compared to previous estimates. The annual economic loss for Asia and the Pacific is now $675 billion, or around 2.4 per cent, of the region’s GDP, of which $405 billion, or 60 per cent, are drought-related agricultural losses, impacting the rural poor disproportionately.
“Countries across the region have committed themselves to the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] by 2030 to ensure that no one is left behind,” Alisjahbana said. “But they cannot achieve many of the SDG targets if their people are not protected from disasters that threaten to reverse hard-won development gains. This means not just building resilience in priority zones but doing so across the entire region – reaching the most marginal and vulnerable communities.”
Thailand is in a group of countries where the average annual loss is up to $20 billion, but investments to address the issue are relatively small, or about half of the damage and losses from disasters, according to the report. Countries with average annual loss exceeding $20 billion are China, India and Indonesia.
The report identifies four distinct hotspots in the region where fragile environments are converging with critical socioeconomic vulnerabilities. They include the transboundary river basins of South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Ring of Fire in Southeast Asia and East and Northeast Asia, sand and dust storm corridors in East and Northeast Asia, South and Southwest Asia and Central Asia, and climate-related hazards in the Pacific Small Island Developing States. A person in the Pacific is found to be three to five times more at risk than those in other parts of the region, the report points out.
The report calls for transformative change, with social policies and disaster resilience no longer treated as separate policy domains. It highlights how policymakers can enhance the quality of investments through policy reforms for more inclusive and empowered societies, to ensure that poor and vulnerable groups are not excluded from the benefits of investments due to barriers in accessing land, reliable early warning systems, finance and decision-making structures.
Similarly, the report explores how emerging technologies such as big data and digital identities can be used to ensure the poorest and most vulnerable groups are included in policy interventions. The report also points out that many of the region’s disaster hotspots extend
across national boundaries and proposes a set of regional policy actions to be implemented through the Asia-Pacific Disaster Resilience Network, supported by Escap.