The jury may still be out on the link between climate change and natural disasters. But one thing is clear: weather-related disasters are increasing in both frequency and intensity. Witness the string of severe recent floods across Asia - from Pakistan to Thailand and the Philippines - and Hurricane Sandy in the US, which have vividly shown us how extreme weather events can bring entire countries to a virtual standstill. Volatile weather extremes are hitting Asia and the Pacific more often than any other region of the world.
This gives the region a huge stake in mitigating global temperature rise while adapting to the impact of climate change. Sixty percent of the region's people rely on highly climate-sensitive farms, forests and fisheries for their livelihoods. Seven out of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change and naturally caused disasters are in this region. A decrease in fresh water availability could affect more than one billion people by 2050.
The region has borne the brunt of the physical and economic damage of increased disasters. It accounted for 38 per cent of global disaster-related economic losses between 1980 and 2009. Its people are four times more likely to be affected by disasters than those in Africa, and 25 times more likely than in Europe or North America.
A recent Asian Development Bank report noted that storms and floods are becoming endemic to the region, and their increasing frequency and severity can slash economic growth and development. It is the poorest and most vulnerable citizens who suffer the most, and we cannot hope to bring an end to poverty without building resilience to climate change and these associated events.
The challenge is to tackle both at the same time. We need to mobilise massive funds for climate change adaptation; around US$40 billion a year for the region would be a conservative estimate. Investing in disaster risk reduction as part of adaptation makes sense; it has been estimated that every dollar spent to reduce risk saves at least US$4 in future relief and rehabilitation costs.
More closely integrating climate change and disaster-related activities presents its own challenges, given the different - sometimes competing - interests involved.
The Climate Investment Funds have endorsed US$1.5 billion to the Asian Development Bank for mitigation and adaptation co-financing in the Asia-Pacific region. The funds' pilot programme for climate resilience has thus far allocated US$278 million for projects in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Tajikistan, Tonga and elsewhere.
Much can be done to supplement these efforts. The region needs, for example, an Asia-Pacific disaster risk insurance scheme, and it would benefit from the wider introduction of catastrophe bonds. Such innovative forms of insurance can increase resilience by forcing communities to model, price and manage the risks of climate change. A fund for climate-induced disasters in the region that would channel critically needed post-disaster assistance into building resilience against future catastrophic events should also be considered.
So far, few developing Asian countries have focused on disaster risks in their economic development plans. As a region, we no longer have a choice. Neglecting the looming threats of increased weather-related disasters would put millions of Asia's most vulnerable people at increased risk of poverty, ill health and premature death.
The Asia-Pacific region has a critical role to play in reaching a solution to the climate crisis. Its people and economies face ever increasing risks from the consequences of climate change, and future economic growth must be decoupled from the rapid expansion of greenhouse gas emissions. The impacts are felt at a very personal and local level, and it is critical that we create, invest in and act on solutions on that level even as this global problem requires a global solution.
Bindu N. Lohani is vice-president for knowledge management and sustainable development at the Asian Development Bank