Nature and Biodiversity

Why Asia-Pacific is especially prone to natural disasters

A man runs next to huge waves breaking on the waterfront, as the Typhoon Kong-rey approaches in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, China October 4, 2018.Picture taken October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT.    REUTERS/Stringer CHINA OUT - RC1742299880

Typhoon Kong-rey approaches Taizhou, China Image: REUTERS/Stringer

Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Future of the Environment

Humanity is faced with more natural disasters, which last longer and impact more people than ten years ago. Climate change, population growth and urbanization are contributing to an increase in both the number and severity of disasters, with the Asia Pacific region particularly badly hit.

According to the United Nations’ Global Humanitarian Overview 2019 report, in the period between 2014 and 2017, 870 million people from 160 countries, either lost their lives, their livelihoods or were displaced from their homes because of disasters caused by natural hazards.

Floods, severe storms, droughts and other climate-related extremes are responsible for over 90% of global disasters and affect the most people.

Image: UNOCHA



The cost of damages caused by natural catastrophes around the world has rocketed, from an estimated $47 billion in 2009 to $340 billion in 2017, despite a similar number of incidents in both years.

These extremes occur in all parts of the world but some regions are impacted more than others.

Especially vulnerable

Asia-Pacific nations experience more natural disasters than any other region. Between 2014 and 2017, nations in this region were affected by 55 earthquakes, 217 storms and cyclones, and 236 cases of severe flooding, impacting 650 million people and causing the deaths of 33,000 people.

Vulnerability to disasters is not solely a matter of where a person lives, but also depends on the way they live. Many Asia-Pacific nations share common characteristics, such as large, growing populations with a high proportion of people living in poverty.

Poorer villages and farms near coastal regions often lack resources to build adequate sea defences, for example, leaving them exposed to monsoon rains and storms. Strong winds and flooding not only destroy homes, livestock and crops, but can pollute fresh water supplies and cut off food and medicine supply routes.

For example, when the deadliest ever tropical cyclones hit the Chittagong region of southeastern Bangladesh, they killed over 135,000 people and left an estimated 10 million homeless. Poor communications and lack of preparedness meant that villagers received no warning of the coming storm.

In addition, industrialization is driving high concentrations of people to live in badly constructed, crowded cities. Rapid urbanization and inadequate planning make densely populated urban areas more vulnerable, particularly near coastal regions and large rivers.

The region also suffers from high rates of environmental degradation. In places, logging and land clearances for farming activity have caused dramatic loss of tree cover, depleting natural protection and increasing the risk of landslides.

Environmental degradation and the effects of climate change are also being felt in east and southern Africa, where the harm caused by erratic rainy seasons and deep-rooted poverty are being exacerbated by political and economic instability.

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Disaster response

While climate change is increasing the threat from extreme weather, much is being done to remedy the dangers.

Aid agencies, governments and regional bodies are working to improve local disaster-response capabilities.

Local and international communication networks are in place in many communities to warn people of pending dangers. The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System was implemented following the 2004 tragedy, which alerts national warning centres within 10 minutes of an earthquake occuring.

Organizations increasingly rely on planning and data analysis to predict when and where extreme weather events will occur to reduce their impact. Early awareness of a disaster also helps to generate the aid funding needed to respond effectively to emergencies.

Aid organizations like The Red Cross are developing programmes to assist poor villagers, helping people break the cycle of poverty by diversifying local economies away from subsistence crops.

Short-term disaster response gives vital resources and hope to people living through disasters. But a longer-term solution lies in reducing the vulnerability of people in poverty by helping them create sustainable livelihoods to reduce their exposure to such risk.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityGlobal RisksClimate ActionUrban Transformation
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