Pakistan Floods Underscore Need for Asia Cooperation to Respond to Disasters

The terrible floods this week in northwest Pakistan have already killed more than 1,100 people, and more than a staggering 1.5 million people have been left homeless or in need of immediate assistance by the raging waters.   The Pakistan government and its military are responding now, rescuing stranded villagers, airlifting medical aid and what relief supplies are available to help rebuild shelter and bridges in the affected areas and communities.   Sadly, many of the people most affected by the floods were already displaced – they had fled their homes because of fighting between the government and the Taliban, and some were even still rebuilding homes after the losses of the devastating 2005 Pakistan earthquake.  Alongside the government, the United Nations is deploying humanitarian relief assistance, and the US and China and other nations are offering their help too in dealing with the worst Pakistan flooding in 80 years.

This natural disaster caused by heavier than usual monsoon rains underscores the pressing need for improving the regional response to disasters in Asia, to permit the best-prepared from across the region to assist in responding to the worst emergencies.   Many of the developing countries of Asia do not have the capacity or the resources to respond to the challenges of severe and massive natural disasters on their own.  They benefit from access to new technologies, skill development and best practices derived from across the Asia region in seeking to improve their own disaster response and minimize the risks of disaster.   The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the Asia regional arm of the United Nations, is helping Asian countries to do this as part of their overall national development strategies.

In just over five years, Asia has witnessed the Tsunami of 2004, the twin disasters of Cyclone Nargis and the Sichuan China earthquake in 2008, and countless smaller but still severe earthquakes, floods, storms and cyclones across the Pacific Islands and the Asian landmass.  

Asia Pacific is the most disaster prone region and most seriously affected by natural disasters of many types: floods, droughts and meteorological, seismic and ecological disasters, as well as forest and grassland fires.   Many Asian and Pacific states are developing countries, which experience higher levels of mortality in disasters.   For instance, of the 10 most affected countries in 2007, in terms of number of victims, six were in Asia, namely, Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan, Philippines and Viet Nam.  ESCAP is helping to bring Asian and Pacific states together in preparing for and responding to flooding, earthquakes and cyclones wherever they occur, by offering:

  • Policies and learned strategies on disaster risk reduction and mitigation to build on Asia’s shared common knowledge.  While these were the worst floods in Pakistan in memory, other neighboring Asian countries have recent experience with seasonal flooding – sharing Asia’s knowledge of disaster preparedness provides valuable assistance to all countries dealing with particular disasters for the first time.  ESCAP’s Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2010 and creating common web platforms for information sharing and analysis are the first steps in building long-term development strategies for regional disaster response.
  • Increasing ICT connectivity between Asian countries to improve sharing of knowledge and best practices in disaster response and prevention.  Ultimately, ICT connections are the first step in developing critical local community-based early warning networks in all areas of the region to save lives. 
  • One especially urgent approach is to make satellite-based observation platforms available to all Asian governments – real-time advanced satellite imagery of Pakistan’s overflowing rivers would have given communities time to sound the alert – moving families to higher ground and saving lives.  Working with Asian technology partners including the Japanese Space Agency, ESCAP is setting up a regional mechanism to do just that -- a space-based natural disaster early warning system for Asia.

The floods in Pakistan and simultaneous forest fires and unprecedented heat wave in Russia are tragic reminders that weather-related natural disasters will only increase as global climate change continues unabated.   The increasing frequency of natural disasters in Asia make clear the urgent need for an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to develop a range of adaptation measures to assist the poorest and most vulnerable inhabitants of Asia’s floodplains and other marginal living areas.
While we wait for a global consensus on how to reduce climate change, however, we urgently need to move forward with developing mitigation strategies and improving national responses to natural disasters.   One such opportunity will take place at the end of October in Incheon, Korea, when Ministers and government leaders from Asian and Pacific countries will gather at the 4th Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction to seek consensus on a series of region-wide initiatives, assisted by the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Secretariat.   Agreeing to share resources and knowledge for disaster response across the region would be a tremendous step forward. The plight of those who have lost their homes in Pakistan is a vivid reminder of the danger of inaction.

Dr. Noeleen Heyzer is Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP.