Asia on the frontlines of natural disasters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkie Asian Review 

No continent is more vulnerable to natural disasters than Asia, the world’s largest and most populous region. It has the dubious distinction of being home to some of the world’s leading natural disaster-related hot spots.

One fact confirms Asia’s status as a high humanitarian risk area: It accounts for the majority of all people killed, injured or uprooted by natural disasters globally in the past four decades. In the first half of 2014, 820 people were killed and 31 million affected in 56 disasters in Asia, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Looking a little further back and including the humanitarian impact of Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippine island of Leyte last November, the estimated death toll exceeds 10,000.

Asia’s vulnerability to disasters arises from five factors: geography, geology, natural climate extremes, human-induced changes to the environment and global warming.

The most common and potent hazards in Asia are water-related: floods, cyclones and droughts, for example. Geological hazards, such as earthquakes, landslides and volcanic eruptions, also claim lives and displace residents regularly, wreaking serious economic damage at the same time. Asia’s poor bear the brunt of the recurrent cataclysms.

People stand among debris and ruins of houses after Typhoon Haiyan pulverized the city of Tacloban.

People stand among debris and ruins of houses after Typhoon Haiyan pulverized the city of Tacloban.

The region’s geographical vulnerability — Asia has suffered 40% of the world’s disasters in the past decade and 80% of the disaster-related fatalities — is compounded by two factors. The continent’s high population density in low-lying areas and its vast stretches of coastline, the world’s longest, lead to increased risk. Southeast Asia, in particular, stands out for its coastline-related vulnerability: It has 3.3% of the global landmass, but more than 11% of the world’s coastline. The majority of the 600 million people in the world living in areas less than 10 meters above sea level are Asian, residing mainly in Southeast and South Asia.

Moreover, the areas of Asia experiencing high economic growth are located along coastlines, which tend to be heavily populated and constitute prime real estate. Indeed, many of Asia’s major cities, energy plants and industries are located along the coasts. The vulnerability of coastal infrastructure has emerged as an important concern.

Nuclear-power plants, for example, guzzle water. All new nuclear plants in Asia — the center of global atomic energy construction — are located along coastlines, allowing them to draw on seawater for cooling. Seaside reactors face big risks from the global-warming-induced increase in natural disasters, as was highlighted by Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, in part caused by a tsunami.

Cursed land

Geologically, Asia is one of the world’s most complex and vulnerable zones, as the interaction of the region’s tectonic plates shows. Its vulnerability extends from where the Indian plate meets the Eurasian plate in the Himalayas to the northern margins of the Australian plate. The edges of the plates meet along Pacific’s Ring of Fire.

Tectonic plate interactions make Asia vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. Two of the world’s biggest ever combined earthquake and tsunami disasters have occurred in Asia in the past decade: in the Indian Ocean in late 2004 and in Japan in March 2011. The 2004 disaster led to more than 230,000 deaths, while Japan’s cost more than 15,000 lives.

Asia’s climate extremes are shaped by water: There can be too little, or too much, of it; it can be too dirty, becoming unsafe to drink; when it rains, it often pours; dry periods can go on too long; and weak monsoons can trigger serious droughts.

Much of Asia receives most of its yearly rainfall during monsoon periods, which can last from three to four months. Flooding in this season is endemic, exacting heavy economic and human costs. But drought — a slow-onset hazard with crippling effects — often tends to be a bigger problem, as this year has shown. Indeed, global drought risks, in terms of the number of people exposed, are concentrated in Asia.

Human-induced changes to the landscape — which are distinct from global warming, though they can be a stepping stone to it — are also contributing to extreme weather events and aggravating their impacts. Environmental change arises from human actions such as reckless land use, contamination of surface-water resources, groundwater depletion, environmentally unsustainable irrigation, degradation of coastal ecosystems, waste mismanagement, and the destruction of forests, mangroves and other natural habitats.

Coastal erosion, for example, has become a serious problem in certain zones, in part because of the clearing of coastal forests. The over-exploitation of coastal aquifer systems is accelerating seawater intrusion. When freshwater reserves are depleted in coastal aquifers, seawater seeps in to supplant the lost freshwater. This factor is beginning to affect drinking-water supplies in coastal cities such as Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok and Dhaka.

Consider another example: The rivers originating on the Tibetan plateau form 11 Asian mega-deltas, which are home to cities such as Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Bangkok, Dhaka, Kolkata and Karachi. But these megadeltas, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have become “much more vulnerable” to the effects of global warming and sea-level rise because of deforestation in Tibet’s upstream catchment areas and the over-damming of the rivers.

Global warming is a fifth factor. There are some gaps in our scientific understanding of this phenomenon. Climate science, after all, is still young. Yet what we know should be a cause for concern for Asia, which must cope with new challenges, such as greater variability in the movement, distribution and quality of water. Natural climate events, such as the intermittent El Nino and La Nina ocean currents that cause secondary disasters in tropical regions, including forest fires with trans-boundary haze, further complicate the problem.

Two water-related implications of global warming for Asia are beyond dispute. First, water stress will intensify and spread to new areas. Asia already has the lowest per-capita water availability among all continents, with large parts of the region now facing water crises. Second, shifts in precipitation and runoff patterns will mean greater variability in water availability, potentially affecting Asian food security.

To deal with their disaster vulnerability, Asian states must do two things: develop greater institutional and organizational capacity to manage environmental stresses and increasing susceptibility to natural hazards; and build resilience. As underscored by the Indian Ocean tsunami and the more recent typhoons that hit the Philippines, building resilience is at the heart of the challenge.

Warning not enough

Resilience is the capacity to absorb shocks and disturbances in such a way as to be able to reorganize fairly quickly. But to be able to reorganize rapidly, a state must have the necessary institutional and organizational means, including implementing forward-looking measures.

Along with developing early-warning systems and preparedness, states must establish smart water-resource management, adapt to water stress by adopting innovative practices and technologies, and develop new crop varieties more tolerant of drought and flooding. Not just governments but also communities and companies need to become more resilient by going beyond traditional risk management to prepare for systemic changes and unforeseen events.

When a disaster strikes a country, the crucial first response cannot come from outside. It must come from within. When nuclear meltdowns occurred at Fukushima, even the International Atomic Energy Agency, a specialized agency, was not initially in a position to offer any concrete assistance to Japan. In the early phase, the IAEA offered criticism but little else.

Yet it is in this critical early phase that a country’s institutional and organizational capacity can make an important difference in saving lives and rescuing people. Rapid-response capability, including local emergency action and providing clean water, food and shelter to survivors, can significantly limit fatalities.

More fundamentally, risk-reduction measures, including protecting or restoring ecosystems that buffer the impact of natural disasters, can help limit both fatalities and economic losses from cataclysms. But the ability of states to adopt best-available practices and technologies to mitigate their disaster-related vulnerabilities very much depends on their political and economic capabilities.

Simple preventive actions, such as the mass evacuation of residents on the basis of early warning systems, can save countless lives. For example, the evacuation of half a million residents from the southeastern Indian coast in October in advance of Typhoon Hudhud — one of the fiercest cyclones to hit the region in years — kept the death toll to fewer than 50. When a typhoon struck the same area in 1999, 10,000 were killed. In contrast to India’s improvement, the failure to evacuate residents caused an estimated 84,500 deaths in Myanmar’s 2008 Typhoon Nargis, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In Asia as elsewhere, countries must develop institutional, organizational and financial capacity as a bulwark against disasters. States with good governance and adequate financial resources will deal with their vulnerabilities in a much better way than cash-strapped nations wracked by internal turmoil and corroding governance.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkie Asian Review, 2014.