East Asian countries need to improve disaster plans and infrastructure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 10:39am

Hong Kong is looked on enviously by its neighbours every typhoon season. While other cities battle floods and landslides, often with disastrous and tragic consequences, we weather severe storms with just minor injuries and felled trees, as with Typhoon Vicente last month. Being prosperous and having ample funding for sturdy infrastructure helps, but it is only a part of being prepared. Of as much importance are planning, alert systems, monitoring and political will.

Last month's flooding in Beijing, the worst to hit the capital in six decades, amply proves the point. The city is not short of funding to improve drainage and stabilise slopes, yet the necessary flood prevention work had not been carried out. Official figures showed a devastating toll: 77 lives, 1.6 million people affected and more than 10 billion yuan in damage. It was a similar story in Manila during downpours this month that killed almost 100 people and in Bangkok last October, when floods that were Thailand's biggest ever disaster caused an estimated US$45.7 billion in damage and economic losses.

Climate change is exacerbating the dangers, leading to stronger storms. Putting ever more lives at risk is rapid urbanisation. Officials are struggling to build the necessary infrastructure. Two million people a month are moving to East Asia's cities in search of jobs and better lives and they often live illegally on flood- or landslip-prone land in poorly built homes. When disaster strikes, they are the most vulnerable.

The region has a high incidence of natural disasters, from earthquakes and tsunami to storms. Governments have to ensure that residents do not live in danger zones. That requires planning, implementation and regular inspections. When danger looms, citizens have to be given timely warnings. But no matter how much funding and effort is put into improving safety or what is built, it is worthless unless there is the political will to enforce rules and laws.