How disaster resilience has saved lives

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VINOD THOMAS

The deadly storms that battered the US East Coast, the Caribbean and South Asia are the latest and most emphatic evidence of the worldwide spike in extreme floods and storms.

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As climate change aggravates these hydro-meteorological events, countries with long coastlines such as Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines are especially exposed.

The only lasting response is to cut greenhouse gases and contain global warming. Meanwhile, we had better build far greater resilience to the danger.

In Asia-Pacific, climate change is exacerbating storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves. Last year saw the highest temperatures on record and 2017 promises to be even hotter.

Crucially for the Philippines, predicted sea level rises will be higher than previously estimated. Crop zones are shifting, destabilizing the country’s food production and livelihoods even as areas of prolonged droughts and water shortages expand across the region.

Early warning systems
Japan’s Meteorological Agency recently updated its Evaluation Alert System to underscore the urgency of evacuation during emergencies and to map the intensity of weather-related hazards. More sophisticated weather modeling, better early warning systems, and more robust evacuation plans for populations in the path of a typhoon have meant death tolls have plummeted.

Bangladesh, subject to annual flooding and to truly massive losses of life, has improved its ability to provide early warning systems and hurricane shelters, and evacuate areas most at risk. As a result, while the cyclone and floods of November 1970 took the lives of 300,000 people, a similar size storm in May 1997 claimed 188 lives.

A more recent and striking example is how the population of Tulang Diyot, a small island off mainland Cebu, was saved from the wrath of Typhoon Haiyan (local name: Yolanda) in 2013 because evacuations were enforced. While the storm destroyed all houses on the island, there were no casualties among its 1,000 inhabitants.

Dealing with the aftermath
Basic to building resilience is having accessible infrastructure for safe water, sanitation and electricity for health facilities. Disruptions in these lifelines lead to a breakdown in law and order in the aftermath of a natural disaster, be it a flood or earthquake.

Essential public services need to be assured of uninterrupted power supply, protected access routes, and safe water and sanitation. Did you know that disaster-proofing a hospital, by one measure, adds less than a tenth to the cost of a new hospital, while rebuilding virtually doubles the initial cost?

Indonesia is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, regularly experiencing earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding and drought. In 2004, storms and floods from one of the deadliest tsunamis in history killed some 230,000 people in 14 countries around the Indian Ocean—nearly 170,000 of them in Indonesia. The country’s post-tsunami efforts included the construction of evacuation centers linked to road networks in Banda Aceh, which also provided lessons on preparedness.

Evacuation centers and robust routes are going to be increasingly important to the Philippines.

With the added danger of global warming, zoning regulations to restrict new developments in hazard-prone areas and building codes to protect homes and businesses are critical to minimizing the kind of disruption to supply chains and information networks that took place during the massive floods of the past decade in Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

Such measures, however, are tough to implement because of conflicting interests between people’s livelihood on the one hand and their safety on the other. With rising sea levels and temperatures, previous norms for the safe distance to live from a coastline in the Philippines have become obsolete.

With the heightened frequency of floods and storms driven by climate change, providing adequate financing for disaster management will be increasingly necessary.

The Philippines has improved intra-government coordination and has put in place dedicated institutions to deal with calamities. But the government and external financiers need to allocate far more to the rebuilding of lives and livelihoods, especially for the poor and vulnerable.

We have also seen high payoffs to investing in education, information sharing, and capacity development. In light of this, the Asian Institute of Management will launch a program for leadership in disaster resilience. The new program will kick off with a high-level conference on 29 November 2017 at the AIM campus in Makati.

The new norm for weather-related disasters calls for far greater defenses, especially in Southeast Asia where the Philippines too often bears the brunt of these heightened risks.

Building disaster resilience with far more financing and stronger leadership from government and the private sector directed squarely at crisis and risk management, and then building climate resilience into every development project needs to become the law of the land.

Dr. Vinod Thomas is a Visiting Professor at the Asian Institute of Management and is the author of Climate Change and Natural Disasters, 2017 (Routledge). It is under his guidance that AIM will shortly roll out short courses in disaster risk and crisis management, with certificate courses to commence in 2018, and a master’s degree program, in 2019. E-mail VThomasMT@AIM.edu for more information or visit AIM.edu.

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