Photo: Cover of ‘The Disaster Riskscape Across Asia-Pacific: Pathways for resilience, inclusion and empowerment’. Credit: ESCAP - Photo: 2019

Asia-Pacific Faces a Daunting Spectrum of Natural Hazards

New UN Report Warns of Huge Economic Losses

By Devinder Kumar

NEW DELHI | BANGKOK (IDN) – Vulnerable and marginalized communities are among the hardest hit by natural disasters that occurred in a relentless sequence in Asia and the Pacific in the past two years, beyond what the region had previously experienced or was able to predict. This, according to the latest report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), is “a sign of things to come in the new climate reality” where economic losses are set to quadruple.

Recent disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts, dust storms and heatwaves “can strike anyone, anywhere, but they do their greatest damage in the poorest communities — often those of minority  groups, or of people living in remote areas, or in the fragile marginal zones of the region’s rapidly expanding cities”, says Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, ESCAP Executive Secretary and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, in a foreword to the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2019.

The report, titled The Disaster Riskscape Across Asia-Pacific: Pathways for resilience, inclusion and empowerment’, presages “a daunting spectrum of natural hazards” in the region and spells out the extent of disaster risk in the regional ‘riskscape’ offering a comprehensive analysis taking into account all types of disaster — intensive or extensive, rapid or slow-onset. It shows that many of the region’s disasters are linked to environmental degradation and to climate change, leading to a more complex future of unpredictable multi-hazard risks.

In 2018, almost half of the 281 natural disasters worldwide occurred in Asia-Pacific region, including eight out of the ten deadliest. An average of 142 million people in the region have been affected annually since 1970, well above the global average of 38 million, notes the report – a bi-annual flagship publication of ESCAP which aims assist policymakers, in both public and private sectors, to better understand disaster risk and resilience and take the many opportunities for action.

For the first time, the Asia-Pacific Disaster 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.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, ESCAP Executive Secretary. Credit: ESCAP“Countries across the region have committed themselves to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 — to ensure that no one is left behind. 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 the priority zones but doing so across the entire region – reaching the most marginal and vulnerable communities,” said ESCAP Executive Secretary Alisjahbana at the launch of the report in Bangkok on August 22.

Almost 40 per cent of disaster impacts are on the social sectors resulting in deeper inequalities of opportunity that are transmitted over generations, notes the report. Disasters are also set to slow down poverty reduction. The number of people living in extreme poverty (under $1.90 a day) is anticipated to be 56 million by 2030. The number would more than double to 123 million if disaster risk remains unmitigated.

“However, this is not inevitable. 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,” notes the ESCP head Alisjahbana.

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 South-East Asia; the Pacific Ring of Fire in South-East Asia and East and North-East Asia; sand and dust storm corridors in East and North-East Asia, South and South-West 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, declares the report.

It 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.

The report also 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.

“Even the poorest countries can be empowered by smart digital technologies. Artificial intelligence and big data techniques, for example, can build a live picture of rapidly developing events by merging satellite imagery with data from mobile phones. At the same time, digital identity systems can offer more ways to deliver essential social protection services, before, during and after disasters,” notes the report.

Furthermore, the report 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. [IDN-InDepthNews – 23 August 2019]

Photo: Cover of ‘The Disaster Riskscape Across Asia-Pacific: Pathways for resilience, inclusion and empowerment’. Credit: ESCAP

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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