Asia’s poorest countries have few defenses against natural disasters and will have to get used to living with their enormous human and economic toll, according to a study by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap).
The agency’s annual ‘Disaster Report’ predicts that 40% of worldwide economic losses from disasters will occur in Asia in the decade spanning 2020-2030, with the region’s largest economies – Japan, China, South Korea and India – the worst affected.
Poorer nations like Myanmar, Cambodia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Laos, however, will have less capacity to either prepare for disasters or respond to their aftermath, thus putting far more people at risk of death or displacement.
“The least developed countries as a whole are expected to have annual losses of around 2.5 per cent of GDP [gross domestic product],” the study predicts. Losses for more advanced countries are expected to average about 4% of GDP.
Natural and man-made disasters have taken 821,170 lives and affected about 1.4 billion people in Asia since 2000. They included the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and earthquake, which killed 200,000, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008 (138,000) and the Sichuan earthquake in China (87,000), also in 2008.
Southeast Asia recorded 362,335 fatalities, with most attributed to the 2004 tsunami catastrophe. About 261,000 people were killed in South and Southwest Asia, 137,628 in East and Northeast Asia and 60,000 in North and Central Asia over the same period.
Numbers affected by disasters ranged from 1.1 billion in Asia’s south and southwest to just 1.6 million in the more affluent eastern and northern nations.
But economic losses surged to US$546.6 billion in the richer countries, compared with $94 billion in the south/southwest, because of higher urbanization rates. Southeast Asia’s economy took a US$73.2 billion hit from disasters and the northern and central countries suffered combined losses of US$9.8 billion.
There were fewer disasters in 2016, but 4,987 people lost their lives and 35 million were affected; economic damage was estimated at US$77 billion. Floods were blamed for 3,250 deaths, and droughts affected 13 million people.
Since 1970 Asia has lost US$1.3 trillion of assets, mostly to floods, storms, droughts and earthquakes – including tsunamis – and the impact will rise in coming decades due to the effects of climate change and lifestyle shifts, the UN says.
Populations are surging in coastal regions most vulnerable to typhoons and floods, which are predicted to grow more intense as oceans warm. In recent months, parts of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh, India and Nepal have been inundated from severe storms.
In 2020-2030, China, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan will experience losses two to three times greater than in the reference year of 2010 due to climate change, the UN report predicts.
A separate report this month by the UN and Norway’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Center warned that eight of the 10 countries with the biggest risk of population displacement and housing losses from disasters were in Asia.
India (2.3 million) has the most exposed population, followed by China (1.3 million), Bangladesh (1.2 million), Vietnam (1 million), the Philippines (720,000), Myanmar (570,000), Pakistan (460,000) and Indonesia (380,000). The two non-Asian countries are Russia (250,000) and the United States (230,000).
An average annual expenditure of US$2.3 billion to US$4 billion would be needed to reduce economic losses, now averaging US$160 billion a year, by 10% up to 2030. This was the target date set for a global Framework of Disaster Reduction at the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, in 2015.
Sendai’s four priorities for action are understanding disaster risk, strengthening disaster risk governance, investing in measures that reduce risks and boost resilience, enhancing preparedness to enable an effective response, and a “Build Back Better” approach for recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.
Most Asian countries are unable to meet the bulk of these benchmarks, according to the Escap report, usually because of a lack of resources. Only two of the five Asian nations ranked as highly exposed in the 2016 World Risk Index – Japan and Brunei – are also rated highly for their ability to cope with disasters.
Two of the others, Bangladesh and Cambodia, were given “very low” rankings for their coping capacity, while the Philippines got a “low” rating. On average, the death toll for people living in countries with low- or middle-incomes is almost 15 times higher than for populations in high-income countries.
Disaster agencies in countries like China, Japan and South Korea are helping to reduce risks by designing more resilient communities and improving their ability to respond quickly. Southeast Asian officials are currently meeting in Laos to adopt an accord on response mechanisms, but it will only offer guidelines.
The country where you have the least hope of getting help following a disaster is Afghanistan, whose lack of coping capacity is a staggering 92.85%. And the best? Japan, sitting on an earthquake hot spot, easily leads the way in Asia.