Reducing Vulnerability and Exposure to Disasters in Asia and the Pacific

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Media,
Distinguished Guests,

Let me begin by welcoming you to our UN hub for Asia and the Pacific, and by wishing you a very happy United Nations Day. It is my pleasure to present to you an overview of the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2012 – Reducing Vulnerability and Exposure to Disasters, published by ESCAP & the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

For people across the Asia-Pacific region, 2011 will be remembered as a year of disasters. The Great East Japan Earthquake, the South-East Asian floods, the earthquake in New Zealand and flooding in China affected the lives of millions and cost a staggering $294 billion – the highest annual losses ever recorded, representing 80% of global losses due to disasters in 2011.

Our region is very prone to natural hazards such as typhoons, earthquakes, drought and floods. The first Asia-Pacific Disaster Report, launched in 2010, found that people in the Asia-Pacific region are four times more likely to be affected by natural disasters than those in Africa and 25 times more likely than those in Europe or North America.

This finding is underscored by the 2012 Report. Between 1970 and 2011, almost 75% of all world deaths from disasters were in our region. Even more worrying, between 1970 and 2010, the average number of people exposed to yearly flooding in Asia more than doubled, from 29.5 million to 63.8 million; and the number of people living in cyclone-prone areas grew from 71.8 million to 120.7 million.

Despite the positive trend of reduced deaths, disaster risks are rising in Asia-Pacific. The region is confronted by the twin challenges of increasing exposure of our people and economic assets, and the inability of the most vulnerable groups to cope with disasters.

For the sake of clarity: exposure is the number of people, properties, systems etc. that are subject to potential losses, vulnerability is the circumstances that make these communities and people more susceptible to being damaged by the effects of these hazards.

Rapid unplanned and uncontrolled urbanization has resulted in increased exposure of people and assets in hazardous zones. For example, the report shows that the growing economic exposure to floods in East and North-East Asia, seen in this slide, has increased ten-fold over the last 40 years, and that East and North-East Asia now represents 85% of global economic exposure to rain-triggered landslides.

In addition, the vulnerability, of people and assets to disasters is on the increase, because of circumstances such as persistent poverty, low-quality overcrowded housing, and the lack of basic social safety nets to deal with the cost of disasters. In fact, in many of our developing countries, 95% of urban population growth takes place in informal settlements with poor housing infrastructure, and on “lands of last resort” that range from railway tracks, coastlines, and flood plains to river banks and volcanic slopes - locations all highly exposed to hazards.

In the case of Thailand, recent reviews of the 2011 floods reveal that almost 90% of losses were borne by the private sector – mostly located in the flood plains along the Chao Phraya River.

The overall result is a dangerous mix of not only placing people and assets in areas more prone to disasters, but the increased likelihood that the most vulnerable people will be unable to cope when disasters strike.

Another important finding of the 2012 Report is that although large-scale disasters, such as powerful earthquakes, tsunamis, and unprecedented floods, are most prominently reported and remembered in the media, it is actually the accumulated costs and consequences of repeated small-scale disasters that have greater impact, particularly on those countries with low coping capacity.

Smaller economies, with less diversified economic structures, and countries with high fiscal deficits, show greater vulnerability even in the face of relatively small-scale disasters. As the graph shows, in Nepal as in many other Least Developed Countries, mortality due to small-scale disasters has been growing since 1970.

The Report also emphasizes that it is often the poorest and most vulnerable who bear the brunt of disaster losses. This is illustrated by the fact that during the Thai floods and the flash floods in the Philippines, it was the urban poor who were significantly more affected.

As shown in this graph, in 2009, when Typhoon Ketsana caused damages of $58 million in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 50% of the losses were borne by small farmers. In the Philippines, the same typhoon caused damages of $4.3 billion – 90% of which was borne by poor urban households. Similarly, 70% of the $9.7 billion in flood damage in Pakistan in 2010 was borne by poor households and small farmers.

It is poor and the most vulnerable who are most exposed and at the same time most vulnerable to disaster.

You will know that we are in a race against time with the rapidly-approaching 2015 deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). There is great concern that disasters can impede and even undo the progress made towards achieving the MDGSs. The 2012 Report speaks to this concern, making a strong link between disasters and widening development gaps.

For example, between 2005 and 2010, Pakistan suffered a series of natural disasters. In 2005 it was hit by an earthquake, and while people were still recovering, a cyclone hit in 2007. In 2010, flooding caused massive damage to the already-struggling communities. As a consequence, this slide demonstrates how primary school enrolment in Pakistan declined, after each disaster. These issues were also seen from the experience in the experience of the Thailand floods last year, where many sectors and people were impacted from the urban poor to global supply chains. What this means is that like so many other development issues, disaster risk reduction cannot be viewed in isolation from other development efforts.

The recent Rio+20 Conference emphasized this by stressing the need for stronger inter-linkages among disaster risk reduction, recovery and long-term development planning. These findings will need to be taken into account in our last big push to 2015 on the MDGs, and especially in our discussions on the post-2015 development agenda.

In addition to the data and analysis presented, the Report also makes a number of key recommendations. Amongst these are the need to integrate disaster risk reduction into broader economic and social development strategies; a need for a greater focus on implementation; and the urgent need to strengthen data collection on disasters across the countries of Asia and the Pacific.

Part of the reason for the gap between policies and practice has been the lack of evidence of the socioeconomic impacts of disasters, so better data collection is the important first step in building the case for sustained investment in disaster risk reduction.

Other recommendations include investing in a minimum level of universal social protection. Building such resilience is both critical and largely affordable – ESCAP’s research shows that, for most developing countries of the region, the cost would amount to between 1 and 3 % of gross national income.

Focusing on land use planning, supply chain management and post disaster recovery to “build back better” is another recommendation to reduce exposure to future disasters.

The Report also concentrates on the need for better use of innovative technologies – both to empower citizens with more timely information, and to strengthen the capacities of governments to respond to disasters.

A best practice example of how regional cooperation can facilitate the greater use of innovative technology can be found in the collaboration between ESCAP and the Government of Thailand last year, during the floods. In a meeting between myself and the Honorable Prime Minister, the need was expressed for Thailand to obtain near real-time satellite data to enhance monitoring capacity and to address critical information gaps for evacuation, relief and rehabilitation.

In response, ESCAP served as a coordinating platform, with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters and Sentinel Asia, to enable the partners and users to access near real-time flood data from Earth Observation satellites. We reactivated this coordinating platform to provide similar capacity when the Philippines disaster hit earlier this year. This application illustrates the point made in the Report – that regional cooperation can allow cost-effective sharing of highly sophisticated and often expensive ICT and space technologies.

Ladies and Gentlemen, that brings us to the end of this overview briefing. There are clearly a wide range of themes, messages and recommendations in the 2012 Asia-Pacific Disaster Report. We have only been able to touch on a few of these key points in the short time we have had together today. Although there will be a brief opportunity now for one or two questions, I do urge you to read the Report in greater detail, and to share with your readers, listeners and viewers the information and lessons which can be learned from the real and extensive experience of disasters in our region.