Asean environment: Wetlands for disaster resilience

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Amado S. Tolentino Jr.

THE 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami originating in an earthquake in the sea off Sumatra in Indonesia devastated 12 countries, including Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. As an immediate response, the periodic Asian Wetlands Symposium held in 2005 (in India) recommended, among others, to “prioritize the natural coastal defenses through greenbelt/coastal ‘bioshield’ development…… In connection therewith, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015) identified as one of four priorities the matter of ‘investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience’.”

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Not to be missed is the Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (ADMER), which came into force in 2009 with the intention of providing “effective regional mechanisms to mitigate impacts of natural disasters….through concerted national efforts and intensified regional cooperation.”

Early this year, the Asean Institute of International and Strategic Studies, a consortium of Asean think tanks, concluded that one of the key challenges to Asean is “adapting to climate change:……Asean needs to be prepared for the real possibility that global mitigation efforts are not sufficient. Efforts to adapt to the effects of climate change and disasters will increasingly demand greater coordination and the pooling of resources.”

In the light of scientific information that natural disasters are projected to intensify in Asia, the ADMER could be utilized for disaster prevention and mitigation purposes even if the agreement leans heavily towards disaster preparedness and emergency response, i.e. faster movement of relief goods, better utilization of civilian and military response, etc. ADMER could serve as the basis for Asean’s active role at disaster risk reduction by incorporating effective wetlands management strategies for climate change resilience.

Disaster risk reduction, according to ADMER, means “a framework of elements considered with possibilities to minimize vulnerabilities and disaster risks to avoid, through prevention or, to limit through mitigation and preparedness the adverse impacts of hazards within the broad context of sustainable development.”

Wetlands, on the other hand are among the world’s most valuable ecosystems, providing so may benefits to people. As defense fortifications, wetlands, particularly mangroves, proved excellent defenses against the onslaught of typhoons and tsunamis as proven by the earthquake occurrence mentioned above. Scientists explained that the roots of vegetation in Asian mangroves and other forest wetlands helped to hold the sediments in place against the impact of strong winds, waves and currents. Additionally, wetlands are the “kidneys of the earth,” purifying water and waste from both natural and human sources. As “biological supermarkets,” wetlands provide a wide variety of flora and fauna. Wetlands act as natural dams, absorbing heavy rainfalls, preventing flood downstream; helps shoreline stabilization and erosion reduction. Wetlands help recharge groundwater aquifers too. Most important of all, wetlands provide livelihood to many people.
Aside from mangroves, wetlands include swamps, marshes, mudflats, floodplains, peatlands, estuaries, rivers, lakes and many more generally described as “where water meets land.”

ADMER is replete with provisions which could be used by Asean countries in refuting the claim that while emergency response is almost well attended to from the local to the national government level, much remains to be done in regard to a) cooperation in developing and putting into effect solutions to reduce disaster impacts; b) development of strategies to identify, prevent or reduce disaster risks and losses; c) prevention and mitigation legislation, regulations, policies, plans, programs and strategies; and d) raising public awareness about disaster prevention and mitigation.

In pursuit of this, Asean countries could very well incorporate wetlands for disaster risk reduction and build resilience in their legal agenda. For instance, the strategy of planting mangrove saplings should be a continuing year-round activity in the long and extensive coastlines of countries comprising Asean. Likewise, massive planting of high-quality and commercially productive variety of bamboo could be introduced in riverbanks/river basins and lakeshores as a technique not only to withstand environmental disturbances but also to preserve and rehabilitate freshwater sources and lakes and provide added source of income to people.

Take note that Asean is not only about economic partnership, trade liberalization and economic integration. It is also about environmental security. In that regard, Asean’s environment program, conceived in the early 1980s, has metamorphosed to include an Asean Working Group on Coastal and Marine Environment.

Hosting Asean@50 gives President Duterte a historic opportunity to influence the future direction of Asean vis-à-vis disaster risk reduction, an area where Asean lags behind in terms of prevention and mitigation projects to better achieve climate change resiliency.

It should be borne in mind, however, that building a disaster-resilient Asean needs partnerships among governments, private sector, NGOs, LGUs, and other institutions with clearly defined roles not only in disaster response but also in disaster prevention and mitigation. To begin with, a program on the values and functions of wetlands for disaster risk reduction and onwards to consolidating resilience endeavors among Asean countries on the same track could be embarked on and, in the process, highlight also the need to scale up adaptation to climate change. Indeed, Asean-wide advocacy initiatives about wetlands for disaster risk reduction would do well to invigorate efforts in the region to give climate change resilience the priority that the issue deserves.

Hopefully, the recommendation is realized soon because Asean remains vulnerable to natural disasters. But through multi-stakeholder engagement, improvements can be made at a much faster pace so the region can have a much needed disaster-resilient system.

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