Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2019: ASEAN needs to bolster risk-informed investments to reduce the burden of natural disasters

Natural disasters are becoming increasingly severe, hindering poverty reduction attempts and economic growth. The UN says the Asia-Pacific region isn’t doing enough to protect itself against the risks.   

By Zachary Frye

On September 3, 2018, Super Typhoon Mangkhut slammed into the Philippines, affecting at least 300,000 families. In Pampanga province alone, there were over 1,000 displaced people.

In the aftermath of the storm, one survivor’s words exemplified the destructive power natural disasters can have on a community, its people, and their way of life:

“We are lucky to be alive, but without knowing if we can ever return back home, or if we can generate an income moving forward, what is next for us? We have lived here since 1997, so this community and village is our home. But after this typhoon, we do not know what is next.”

As a new climate reality sets in, more severe and unpredictable weather patterns increase the risk of natural disasters, including ‘slow-onset’ events, like drought.  Regional governments aren’t doing enough to protect citizens from the worst effects.

In a newly released UN document, the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2019, the agency makes the case for increased investment in education, health and social protections to help protect vulnerable populations.

Unmitigated disasters intensify poverty and inequality

UN researchers estimate that the Asia-Pacific region is set to suffer US$675 billion in annual economic losses due to the impacts of natural disasters. Up to 60% of that money will be tied up in drought-related agricultural losses, disproportionality affecting the rural poor.  

Without sufficient preparation, natural disasters will derail regional attempts to reduce poverty. The number of people living in extreme poverty in the region (under US$1.90 a day) is projected to hit 56 million by 2030. If governments aren’t prepared to take steps to mitigate the impact of natural disasters, that number could reach 123 million.

Speaking with ASEAN Today, Tiziana Bonapace, the Director of the ICT and Disaster Risk Reduction Division at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), described the ways natural disasters wreak havoc on impoverished communities:

“Poor populations typically lose more because they are overexposed to disasters and have less ability to cope and recover, especially if they have little social protection or post-disaster support. Moreover, disasters often have permanent impacts on their education and health, thereby locking people into intergenerational poverty traps,” she added.

ASEAN countries need to prioritise risk-informed investments

According to the report, regional governments should do more to prepare for natural disasters. In the long term, that means countries will need to support more resilient communities. ESCAP proposes that the best way to achieve this is to combine climate action with targeted, pro-poor budgets.

If countries view disaster resilience as an integral part of their social and economic agendas, they might prioritise those policy prescriptions more readily.

A Children’s playground in Heng Fa Chuen, Hong Kong, after Typhoon Mangkhut.
Photo: Baycrest

ESCAP argues that increased investments in social protection, healthcare and education are the best way to outpace the risk of natural disasters in the long term. They say these investments not only insure locals against the worst effects of natural disasters but also create a positive feedback loop where social and economic development act as a catalyst for increased resilience in the future.

For the rural and urban poor, it is essential that governments invest more proactively in social safety nets to reduce the severity of economic burdens when disaster strikes. If the region invests 11% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in social protection policies like income transfers or weather-indexed crop insurance, researchers predict that 66 million fewer people will be affected by poverty in 2030.

Similarly, investments in quality public education and healthcare reduce vulnerabilities by expanding opportunity and building resilience to the negative impacts of disaster. With healthy, well-educated populations, disaster-induced economic and social shocks will be diminished.

To meet the increased budgetary requirements, governments will need to generate more income. Although many developing countries won’t find this easy, the cost of doing nothing is too high. The economic losses brought on by unmitigated disaster outpace the amount of additional revenue that is required to achieve these targets.

The Philippines can cut approximately US$20 billion in losses per year by half if it makes the necessary investments. Similar rates of reduction would be expected for Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

For many Southeast Asian countries, however, adequate protection will be an uphill battle.

“ASEAN nations have considerable experience in reducing disaster risk. Yet it will be difficult to stay ahead of the curve as climate change, expanding disaster hotspots, inequality and environmental degradation cumulatively create a more complex risk-scape in which to assert disaster risk reduction actions,” noted Ms Bonapace.

The bloc must also work together to reduce the risks of transboundary disasters 

Natural disasters aren’t concerned with national borders. Whether a flood, drought or storm, disasters often affect multiple countries at the same time. Keeping this in mind, it is essential that ASEAN member states work together to mitigate their worst effects.

Reducing transboundary drought will be one of the most important tasks on the agenda. Earlier this year, ASEAN and ESCAP published a joint study on the ways Southeast Asia can build its resilience against this looming threat.

It proposed setting up a robust early warning system that could inform neighbouring countries of the increased risks. In addition to emphasising the importance of future-oriented government financing, the report noted that cooperation on irrigation management, climate adaption policies, and the sharing of technology and best practices will also be paramount.

Although national governments have a central role to play in reducing the threat of natural disasters, regional cooperation will be the key to unlocking the effort’s full potential.

With climate-induced disasters on pace to rise in the coming years, it will be on the shoulders of the region’s leaders to do all they can to reduce their negative impacts. If they don’t act, ASEAN will see its economic and social gains unnecessarily diminished in the face of a changing – and uncaring – climate reality.