IDNDR-ESCAP Regional Meeting for Asia: Risk Reduction & Society in the 21st Century
Bangkok, 23-26 February 1999
Overview of Experiences and Responses to Recent Disasters in Asia
Mr. Cengiz Ertuna
1. Regional experiences on water-related disasters reduction
a. National experiences in water-related disaster reduction
b. Experiences in regional cooperation for water-related natural disaster reduction
2. Regional experiences on geology-related disasters
3. Regional experiences on other disasters
4. Concluding remarks
Over the past two years the region has suffered exceptionally heavy losses from natural disasters. With respect to floods alone, in 1997 the total damage was estimated at about US$7 billion in seven countries, according to an annual ESCAP survey on water-related disasters. In 1998, the most extreme floods in several decades have devastated some countries in the region, particularly Bangladesh, China, India, Republic of Korea and Viet Nam, resulting in a total damage estimated over US$23 billion, while El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO)-related droughts caused water shortages and forest fires in Indonesia and the Philippines and affected neighbouring countries as well. In July 1998, the 10-metre tsunami that hit Papua New Guinea took more than 2,000 lives in several coastal villages. The Kobe earthquake of January 1995, which killed over 5,000 people in addition to tremendous damage it caused, is still fresh in people’s memories. In terms of desertification, the region is among the world's worst affected areas with 35 per cent of the region's productive land considered to be desertified, including 70 million ha in rainfed areas and 16 million ha in irrigated croplands. Impacts of natural disasters in the region may reach catastrophic levels; for example in Bangladesh the damage due to recent floods reached above 5 per cent of GDP. According to some estimates, the Kobe earthquake in Japan requires rehabilitation costs of over US$ 100 billion.
In the above context, I will present, in this keynote statement, an overview of the experiences and responses to recent disasters in Asia as an introduction to the three presentations that will be made by my colleagues on their analysis of past experiences on water-related and geologic disasters. They are (1) Report of the IDNDR Asian Survey of Accomplishments, (2) Water Hazards, Resources and Management for Disaster Prevention: A Review of the Asian Conditions, and (3) Geological Hazards, Resources and Management for Disaster Prevention: A Review of the Asian Conditions. In order to avoid repetition and save time, I will just briefly touch to these topics.
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ESCAP has some 50 years of experience in water-related disaster reduction since ESCAP (formerly ECAFE) established the Bureau for Flood Control in 1949. This long experience highlights the long-standing spirit of regional cooperation for natural disaster reduction and also underlines the importance of the threat to the economic and social development process in the region posed by water-related hazards. The occurrence of water-related natural hazards is common in the ESCAP region. The impact of these disasters is becoming more devastating, as increasing populations and denser occupation of hazard-prone areas contribute to the growing costs of damage and disruption of activities. Tropical cyclones occur more frequently in the region than in any other part of the world, and are usually accompanied by severe flooding. As reported in a publication of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations, among 5,370 natural disasters that occurred between 1986 and 1995, floods caused 55% of total loss of lives amounting to 367,000 people of which 92 % was in Asia and 31% of total economic loss of which 54% was in Asia. The total value of damage by floods in Asia during 1987-1996 was estimated at US$136 billion. (If the damages caused by floods of 1997 and 1998 are included the total damage would exceed US$160 billion.)
Despite the strenuous national efforts in disaster reduction as reported in detail later, the extreme floods of 1998 caused nearly 7,400 deaths, more than 6 million houses damaged and nearly 25 million hectares of crops destroyed in only five countries, Bangladesh, China, India, Republic of Korea and Viet Nam. In China alone, it was estimated that 223 million people - one fifth of China's population were affected, 3,004 people died and 15 million were made homeless. 15 million farmers lost their crops. The floods caused severe damage to critical facilities such as health clinics, schools, water supply, and other infrastructure such as roads, bridges and irrigation systems as well as industrial facilities. At the end of August 1998, direct economic damage was estimated at over US$ 20 billion. Elsewhere, the drought events associated with the El Nino phenomenon, which occurred from May 1997 to June 1998, were reported to be the strongest experienced in this century, resulting in severe shortages of water in several countries, including Malaysia and the Philippines. El Nino is expected to be followed by La Nina phenomena, with opposite effects of El Nino, in some parts of the region. These extreme events have generated awareness for creation of a new dimension in water resources planning and management.
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Significant progress has been achieved in the region on water-related disaster reduction during the past decade regarding improvements in the planning, management, prevention and preparedness works. Experiences indicate that success depends on how effectively disaster reduction activities are integrated into the national development processes. Progress on such integration has been achieved in three following aspects: (i) as an integral part of the national development process; (ii) as a social component such as in the Bangladesh case, and (iii) as a major requirement for sustainable development. The first aspect includes examples from Brantas and Citarum River Basins in Indonesia, Klang River Basin in Malaysia and Chao Phraya River Basin in Thailand. The second aspect highlighted work already undertaken for the Ganges and Bramaputra Delta. Examples for the third aspect included the amendment of the River Law of Japan in 1997 to incorporate environmental dimensions into the flood control programmes, and the implementation of "the Klang River Basin Environmental Improvement and Flood Mitigation Project" in 1998 in Malaysia.
A two-pronged approach has long been adopted by ESCAP to promote regional cooperation: (a) promotion of technical cooperation, and (b) regional network building with reinforced subregional elements. With respect to technical aspects of regional cooperation in flood control and management, ESCAP have, over the past 50 years, advised and assisted member governments with regard to flood control and related river problems. The main activities of ESCAP during the first few years of its work were concentrated to flood control. Subsequently, the scope of work was extended to address flood control within the framework of basin development, then the economic and social development process and finally as part of an integrated water resources management programme. Numerous workshops and seminars have been organized and scores of publications on this area of work have been produced by ESCAP in its efforts, during the past five decades, to assist the developing countries in the region to reduce natural disasters, especially by floods. Recent efforts culminated into detailed guidelines and manuals to facilitate application of regional experiences and transfer of know how. The latest ESCAP publications of this category dealing with detailed guidelines for flood control planning are (1) Manual and Guidelines for comprehensive flood loss prevention and management in 1991 and (2) Guidelines and Manual on Land-Use Planning and Practices in Watershed Management and Disaster Reduction in 1997. Other publications include Urban Flood Loss Prevention and Mitigation (1990), Natural Hazards and Disaster Reduction in Asia and the Pacific (1995). Another special publication on regional cooperation in flood control and management is under preparation. Every year June issue of the Water Resources Journal presents a survey of the water-related natural disasters experienced during the previous year and their consequences.
On the basis of the above ESCAP’s experiences, the following conclusions can be drawn. Flood control cooperation has evolved from mainly a single subject into a multidisciplinary area. Cooperation in natural disaster reduction has become more sophisticated involving modern and latest technologies. Cooperation has expanded from limited activities to projects, programmes and institutions. While the modality adopted by ESCAP continues to be relevant, its limited resources available for promoting regional cooperation call for more active participation of the members and stronger support of the donor community. Finally, prioritization of ESCAP’s activities is required to meet the increasing needs of its members.
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In terms of network building, ESCAP’s experiences in supporting the three subregional networks, namely the Mekong River Commission, Typhoon Committee and Panel on Tropical Cyclones in cooperation with the World Meteorological Organization, over the past decades, have indicated the following conclusions. Firstly, success in cooperation for flood mitigation depends on how the related measures are integrated into subregional development and annual disaster preparedness plans. Secondly, external assistance is essential to gradually build up national capacities into an effective and sustainable system of cooperation, in addition to firm commitment of the governments. Thirdly, effective subregional cooperation can create an environment conducive to foreign investment in the respective subregions. I should like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the major achievements of these subregional networks from their coordinated efforts to reduce water-related disasters.
(i) The Typhoon Committee covers a wide range of activities on typhoon-related disaster reduction for which several important initiatives were launched and completed under its framework with regard to meteorology, hydrology and disaster reduction. Over the years, this subregional cooperation programme continues to strengthen its work and among major achievements, the following can be cited in the field of flood control:
(a) A good network of modern facilities has been established with investments by the members and assistance from donors. With these facilities, several good data sets of typhoons are now available for research on the subregional scale, particularly for flood forecasting and warning.
(b) From the experience of joint experiment programmes related to designing flood warning systems and developing proper techniques of warnings, a good guide has been established to improve existing forecasting systems and designing new ones in the subregion.
(c) Past joint activities, particularly in terms of intensive mobilization of facilities over a short period of time, have provided good lessons and modalities for the maintenance of facilities and training of personnel. These lessons were considered to be instrumental to the smooth operations of the existing systems and the Typhoon Committee’s cooperation programme.
Geology-related disasters are generally one of the most destructive in terms of human lives lost. In a global survey covering the period 1970-1997 prepared by the Swiss Reassurance Company, published in 1998, of the 40 worst catastrophes in terms of fatalities listed, having caused over a million deaths, 48 per cent were caused by earthquakes. The fact that 30 of the 40 above-mentioned catastrophes had occurred in the ESCAP region (and 87 per cent of the casualties) highlights the importance of this issue for the countries of Asia and the Pacific. The continued population growth in the already heavily populated parts of the region will increase the number and size of large cities, placing more and more people and assets at risk due to potential natural disasters. In this context, it becomes more important to particularly prevent geology-related hazards, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, etc., from developing into natural disasters. In this connection, the ESCAP secretariat continues to promote integration of geological information into urban planning and decision making. To date, a number of member countries have established their own "geology for planning" programmes, supported either by national funding or from bilateral sources. Notable examples are the initiatives taken by the Ministry of Land and Resources of China and the Geological Surveys of India and Viet Nam. Not surprisingly, the rationale followed in these cases is to keep the people and assets away from hazard-prone areas, an approach most effective in areas of newly planned urbanization.
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It should be noted that the past Decade or even a period of several decennia is too small a "window" to obtain a reliable estimate of earthquake hazard, due to the often very long return times of high-amplitude, and therefore very destructive tremors. New methods such as probabilistic seismic hazard analysis, as developed in New Zealand, make use of both the historic record and the geological evidence of preceding events, thus producing more realistic hazard maps that may prove to be very useful in many other vulnerable countries of the ESCAP region. Such techniques and other relevant experiences are being shared periodically at the Forum on Urban Geology in Asia and the Pacific organized annually by ESCAP, which serves as a framework for regional cooperation for the integration of geology in planning and decision making.
A geology-related aspect often not realized is the phenomenon of slow or "creeping disasters". Examples of this can be found in ground subsidence due to neglecting geological conditions in groundwater exploitation, giving rise to "geology-related flooding". But other phenomena also qualify, such as widespread arsenic poisoning, resulting from geochemical, i.e., geology-related natural conditions of the subsurface, as evident in India, Bangladesh and China. These and other under-reported disasters also deserve the attention of the international community in order to be addressed effectively in the not too distant future.
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Land degradation and desertification are other major disasters, which pose serious threat in the region in the wake of growing population and enhanced food demand. The countries most affected by desertification are China, Islamic Republic of Iran, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Pakistan, India and the Central Asian States. A comparison of desertification among the continents indicates that Asia is most severely affected in terms of loss of land productivity and agricultural output, whereas Africa has the highest percentage of desertified dry land. Although desertification process can be seen as a complex interaction of natural and socio-economic forces, in fact human-induced factors such as deforestation, faulty land use practices, mismanagement of irrigation systems and overgrazing, are responsible for accelerating the process. In order to assist the countries in combating desertification, a Desertification Control Network in Asia and the Pacific was established by the ESCAP secretariat to promote exchange of experiences and provide training on desertification control methodologies and to assist in the development of an Asian annex to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD).
Forest and bush fires have always been a hazard in the region but recently they reached catastrophic dimensions. During 1997-1998, massive fires in Southeast Asia destroyed millions of hectares of forest, caused more than $4.5 billion in damage. The fires were caused by the combination of drought, slash and burn agriculture, and exploitation of forests and created a thick, choking haze that covered the subregion, creating serious health problems; causing accidents on land, at sea, and in the air; disrupting transportation systems and resulting in a steep drop in tourism in parts of the region where declining economies could hardly afford it. In order to prevent, and/or effectively deal with future forest and bush fires, ASEAN Secretariat has developed a fire prevention and suppression strategy in the form of a Regional Haze Action Plan to provide training in fire fighting and haze management, improve meteorological services, launch air and ground surveillance, strengthen early-warning systems, and provide technical assistance for coal and peat fire suppression, which was endorsed by ASEAN Ministers in December 1997. A number of United Nations agencies, donors and others assisted in this endeavour of ASEAN. In this regard, ESCAP has initiated a project, funded by the Government of Australia, to create awareness on prevention and promote monitoring of forest fires, which is being implemented in close collaboration with ASEAN Secretariat and other organizations involved in the implementation of this Action Plan.
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In concluding my keynote statement today, I should like to present our perception of achievements and emerging regional concerns as inputs to your deliberation on "Risk reduction and Society in the 21st Century."
Significant progress has been achieved in disaster preparedness and reduction in the region over the past decade, in terms of improvements in planning, institutional strengthening and use of advance technology including space technology applications. Important benefits have been realized from these disaster reduction and preparedness efforts by various countries in the region. However, the increase in the intensity of natural disasters requires continuing and more intensive efforts at local, national and regional levels. In this respect, pertinent geological and hydrological information, such as thematic hazard maps, have a very high potential for reducing fatality rates and losses due to natural disasters.
Regional cooperation for better natural disaster prevention, reduction and management becomes even more important in view of such driving forces as: the rapid urbanization process, increasing rates of economic and social development, and other global factors that would increase the severity of disasters, such as El Nino and potential global climate changes. Within this context, prioritization of regional activities for effective planning, management and development of disaster reduction measures and for applications of space technology to meet the urgent needs, requires wide application of strategic approaches to natural disaster reduction and management. These activities need to be effectively integrated into the national economic and social development process. Such integration and regional cooperation need to be formulated in a well-conceived framework and well-developed regional strategy. Development and updating such a framework and regional strategy is a priority emerging issue for cooperation in the 21st century.
Such a regional strategy may need to address the following five priority areas: (a) realistic integrated planning for disaster prevention and mitigation; (b) enhancement of disaster preparedness including real-time information exchange; (c) community participation throughout the natural disaster reduction and management process; (d) more effective transfer of disaster reduction and management technology; and (e) exchange of experiences and information on institutional arrangements for disaster reduction and management.
In order to culminate regional efforts to realistic targets in the development of a regional strategy for better disaster reduction, the following common objectives may be adopted: (a) realistic reduction of damage, (b) increased disaster awareness, and (c) improvement of forecasting systems. It may be noted that specific targets of these common objectives depend on the economic and social conditions of the respective countries. Formulation of strategies and programmes towards meeting these objectives is therefore of high priority.
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