How to strengthen Asia-Pacific resilience as climate disasters intensify
- With climate risks set to cost the region up to US$1.3 trillion a year, and most countries still ill-prepared for overlapping crises, more must be done to ensure populations and infrastructure are more resilient
Over the past two decades, the Asia-Pacific region has made remarkable progress in managing disaster risk. But countries can never let down their guard. The Covid-19 pandemic, with its epicentre now in Asia, and all its tragic consequences, has exposed the frailties of human society in the face of powerful natural forces.
Asian and Pacific countries have reported more than 65 million coronavirus cases and 1 million deaths. This is compounded by the extreme climate events affecting the world.
Heatwaves, and the related biological hazards in particular, are expected to increase in east and northeast Asia while south and southwest Asia will encounter intensifying floods and related diseases.
Over recent decades, fewer people have been dying as a result of natural hazards such as cyclones and floods. This is partly a consequence of more robust early warning systems and of responsive protection, but also because governments have started to appreciate the importance of dealing with disaster risk in an integrated fashion rather than just responding on a hazard-by-hazard basis.
Nevertheless, there is still much more to be done. As the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, most countries are still ill-prepared for multiple, overlapping crises – which often cascade, with one triggering another.
Tropical cyclones, for example, can lead to floods, which lead to disease, which exacerbates poverty. In five hotspots around the region where people are at greatest risk, the human and economic devastation as these shocks intersect and interact highlights the dangers of the poor living in several of the region’s extensive river basins.
Disasters threaten not just human lives but also livelihoods. And they are likely to become even costlier as their impact is exacerbated by climate change. Annual losses from both natural and biological hazards across Asia and the Pacific are estimated at around US$780 billion.
In a worst-case climate change scenario, the annual economic losses arising from these cascading risks could rise to US$1.3 trillion – equivalent to 4.2 per cent of the regional gross domestic product.
Above all, governments should invest in more robust health infrastructure. This would need substantial resources. The annual cost of adaptation for natural and other biological hazards under the worst-case climate change scenario is estimated at US$270 billion. Nevertheless, at only one-fifth of estimated annualised losses – or 0.85 per cent of the Asia-Pacific GDP, it’s affordable.
Covid-19 has shown yet again how all disaster risks interconnect – how a public health crisis can rapidly trigger an economic disaster and societal upheaval. This is what is meant by “systemic risk”, and this is the kind of risk that policymakers now need to address if they are to protect their poorest people.
This does not simply mean responding rapidly with relief packages but anticipating emergencies and creating robust systems of social protection that will make vulnerable communities safer and more resilient.
Fortunately, as the report illustrates, new technology, often exploiting the ubiquity of mobile phones, is presenting more opportunities to connect people and communities with financial and other forms of support.
To better identify, understand and interrupt the transmission mechanisms of Covid-19, countries have turned to “frontier technologies” such as artificial intelligence and the manipulation of big data. They have also used advanced modelling techniques for early detection, rapid diagnosis and containment.
Asia and the Pacific is an immense and diverse region. The disaster risks in the steppes of Central Asia are very different from those of the small island states in the Pacific.
What all countries should have in common, however, are sound principles for managing disaster risks in a more coherent and systematic way – principles that are applied with political commitment and strong regional and subregional collaboration.
Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the UN undersecretary general and executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (Escap)