Dangerous storms are a fact of life in the Philippines. Even so, the megastorms that recently tore into the southeastern coast of the United States and the Caribbean were followed in the Philippines with a familiar sense of foreboding.
Southeast Asia is one of the regions in the world most vulnerable to weather disasters. Its countries lie in the path of the tropical storms originating in the western Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. On top of that, it has large urban populations concentrated in low-lying cities, including the megacities of Jakarta and Manila.
The Philippines is at the top end of high-risk country rankings worldwide and we could still experience extreme events before the year is out.
On 29 November 2017, the Asian Institute of Management’s Stephen Zuellig Graduate School of Development Management in partnership with the World Bank will host a Disaster Risk and Crisis Management Forum from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the AIM campus in Makati. The theme: “Managing Disaster in the Age of Climate Change and Big Data”. Admission is free.
Among other things, the forum will tackle how the increased frequency and ferocity of weather-related disasters — a global phenomenon — means that building greater resilience to storms and floods must become a higher priority for governments and the private sector; and how this requires a new generation of disaster risk management responses.
Examining the most successful interventions thus far, we see high payoffs from investments in information-sharing and technology, supported by education and institutional capacity in the public and private sectors.
The biggest gains from the current generation of disaster risk responses have come from early warning systems and more robust evacuation plans for populations living in the path of a storm.
As a result, death tolls have declined dramatically. Relying on local authorities to deploy emergency capabilities, complementing the central government, has indeed proven to be an effective way of improving disaster risk management.
Turkey’s new National Emergency Management Information System, for instance, links authorities during disasters and emergency situations. Southeast Asia can likewise develop a more devolved system of information and technology at different levels of government and locations.
The use of mobile phone networks for emergency warnings is not only expanding rapidly but also becoming more sophisticated. Australia’s Emergency Alert enables states and territories to issue warnings to landline and mobile phones linked to properties in areas identified as being at risk. This works across all telecommunication carrier networks.
Meanwhile, the business community has a vested interest in advance early warning capabilities. The flooding that submerged Thailand’s industrial heartland and affected supply chains in 2012 gave companies across the region a sharp lesson on the need for better disaster mitigation and adoption.
Technologies that link sensor networks, large-scale data analysis, and communications systems provide decision-makers in government and the private sector with timely information to guide disaster responses.
Last year, IBM collaborated with the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu on a cloud-based emergency command center, which pools data from various sources to track and gauge weather patterns as early as possible, analyze potential outcomes, and provide guidance for disaster responses.
Philippines ranks fifth
With the climate crisis upon us, governments and private companies have an obligation to make the infrastructure they build more resilient to disasters.
Holding great promise in this area are waterproofing pumping systems, embedding sensors and controls into power lines that can be remotely operated, and water treatment plants that allow operators to take preventive action as storms approach and target repair efforts.
The next level of disaster risk management must be a tougher response to zoning regulations to restrict new development in hazard-prone areas, as well as disaster-responsive building codes for businesses, homes, and communities.
By one measure, the Philippines ranked fifth among 10 countries in Asia with the highest risk of future displacement and loss of housing due to weather-related disasters. And with global warming causing rising sea levels, the safe distance to live from coastlines must be revised.
New financial models and instruments are needed to help cities more efficiently manage disaster risk. Though disasters may be infrequent, there are still high-impact events and few cities have the resources to finance reconstruction on their own.
Governments and development financiers, such as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, can facilitate the supply of credit for rebuilding lives and livelihoods, especially for the poor and vulnerable.
The Philippine government recently launched a US$206-million catastrophe risk insurance program providing coverage to the national government and 25 participating provinces for losses from major typhoons.
Building resilience to natural disasters needs to become an integral part of development efforts on, among other things, education, health, and improving livelihoods. Governments must be the lead actor — but businesses, households and all segments of society need to be actively engaged for results to gain traction.
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). Under his guidance, AIM will roll out 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.