2019 Asia-Pacific Disaster Report shows a region at risk and running out of time

Submitted by James Kemsey | published 19th Sep 2019 | last updated 23rd Sep 2019
Flooding in Ubon Ratchathani, Northern Thailand in September 2019

Flooding in Ubon Ratchatani in Northern Thailand, September 2019.

A more holistic approach to disasters in the region is needed

The Asia-Pacific region is regularly labelled as the most disaster-prone in the world due to a long history of both major catastrophic disasters and frequent small and medium-sized events. However, climate change, environmental degradation and other factors have resulted in a risk landscape for the region that is increasingly uncertain.

The Asia-Pacific Disaster Report, published biennially by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), presents the current status of risk in the region, including hazard, exposure and vulnerability factors. In the 2019 report, the inclusion of slow-onset risks (alongside sudden-onset/extreme event risks) in models reveals the extent of potential disaster and climate economic losses, which would average an estimated US$ 675 billion annually. Climate risks account for around 85% of these losses. Specifically, acute vulnerability to drought in so-called least developed countries, such as Myanmar, Nepal and Lao PDR, contributes significantly to the regional riskscape.

The report also outlines priorities for action to combat rising risks and impacts, reduce vulnerability, and build resilience. This year’s edition highlights the growing role of big data and new technologies in reducing risks. While such tools and sources of information can play important roles, particularly in managing a disaster event, it is less clear how fit for purpose they are for building resilience and ensuring no one is left behind – issues which drive underlying risks for the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in societies across the Asia-Pacific region.

The report makes the relationship between disasters, climate change and sustainable development clear, but perhaps leaves a lot unsaid in terms of targeting risks generated and driven by these “non-hazard” factors. We highlight three specific areas where more attention and resources are needed to deliver more equitable, resilient and sustainable outcomes in the region.

Complex urban risks

Climate-related hazards are particularly prevalent along coasts, which is where many Asian cities are located. Urban areas concentrate risk: a one-metre rise in sea level could displace 37 million people in Asia, while a three-metre rise would affect 90 million – along with the damage to the physical, economic and cultural capital of urban areas. The report highlights that more than a quarter of the region’s urban population lives in informal settlements. People living informally will be the worst affected by disasters, because they lack access to basic services and security of tenure and do not have the voice or means to substantially improve their living conditions.

While the report suggests that new technologies and big data can offer some innovative solutions, for the residents of informal settlements it remains a priority to ensure that basic infrastructure is in place. Access to safe and secure housing, water and sanitation, basic healthcare and education, and secure livelihoods, is essential to building the disaster resilience of those living in informal settlements. Without tenure security, eviction is a constant threat and erodes incentives to invest in disaster-proofing their homes.

Frequent but small-scale disasters such as flooding or fires are a particular threat to the most vulnerable urban households, and can have serious consequences for livelihoods, health and housing, eroding coping capacity and pushing these households further into poverty. Thus, it is vital to strengthen and extend the provision of basic services and necessary risk-reducing infrastructure, such as storm drains, paved roads and piped water supply, in these vulnerable communities.

More people being displaced by disasters

Each year disasters displace millions of people around the world, with the majority of displacement occurring in Asia-Pacific. In 2018, three countries in Asia – the Philippines, China and India – accounted for approximately 60% of all new disaster displacements globally, with almost four million new displacements occurring in both the Philippines and India in a single year. The report highlights that although the overall number of people displaced by weather-related hazards is decreasing in the region, displacement remains a serious concern particularly as some hazards, such as drought, are displacing more people than previously – up to 10 million more per year.

In addition to recognizing the magnitude of disaster displacement, understanding its root causes is essential. Unsustainable development patterns, including poor urban planning and a lack of social services, can marginalize certain groups and increase their risk of displacement. Understanding who is being displaced by disasters and why is critical because it sheds light on the various socio-economic factors and risk-creating practices that drive displacement in the first place.

Disasters shape mobility in many ways. The report describes voluntary migration due to slow-onset hazards and temporary displacement due to intensive risks, but it doesn’t consider the growing trend of planned relocations in response to disasters and other climate-related risks. More attention needs to be paid to the impacts of planned relocations and whether they actually decrease risks or simply create new ones. Recent SEI research identifies new vulnerabilities that have emerged as a result of planned relocations in the Philippines, particularly in relation to loss of livelihoods.

Transboundary risk

The report draws attention to regional hotspots of transboundary river basin risk – including the Indus, Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Mekong – where the combination of poverty, food insecurity, and climate change is amplifying complex risks. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently projected that under a 1.5oC global warming scenario there would be a dangerous combination of floods and droughts in these river basins. For example, countries in the Mekong region are projected to see an increase in river flooding damage of, on average, over 100%.

Strong regional cooperation is crucial for reducing risks and increasing resilience across transboundary landscapes, which the report rightly identifies as one of the three most important factors for increasing disaster resilience in Asia-Pacific. However, while inter-governmental mechanisms create data systems and knowledge, there is no guarantee that this will translate into increased inclusion and empowerment at the ground level.

While the 2019 Asia-Pacific Disaster Report identifies the growing risks faced by the region and presents solutions, there is clearly more to be done to ensure these solutions are holistic. Governments and civil society need to work towards more transformative governance processes – including for the management and use of big data and new technologies – for the people most at risk to become truly empowered as part of efforts to build more equitable resilience.