Opinion

Sustainable living alongside natural risks

By Shamshad Akhtar

The past few weeks have been a grim reminder that naturaldisasters know no borders. They canstrike countries at opposite ends of the globe simultaneously and whether in Asia or North America, the images of people and livelihoods being swept away are disturbing. Intense monsoon floods, typhoon Hato, tropical storm Harvey and hurricane Irma, all raise questions aboutwhat more can be done to both mitigate the risks of extreme weather conditions and improve relief operations.

Disasters are becoming more frequent and intense. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), in its recent report Disaster resilience for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: Leaving no one behindshows natural disasters were responsible for the loss of two million lives andcost the region’s economy $1.3 trillionbetween 1970 and 2016. Over ninety per cent of deaths were due to earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones and floods. The poor and vulnerable bore the brunt of thesedisasters, suffering adeath tollfive times higher than the rest of the population.

By 2030, fifty per cent of the Asian population will be living in urban areas. The combination ofunplanned urban sprawl and new cities means increasing numbers of people and economic stock will beexposed to future disasters we cannot predict. In urban megacities, over fifty per cent of the population already live in disaster proneareas where inequality is high.Our focus must be on identifying potential scenarios, determining risk tolerance levels and building response capacity where it is inadequate. Policy makers need to strengthen the science and policy interfaces to allow countries to deal effectively withthese risks.The report offers a clear set of recommendations on how to build resilience andreinforce sustainable development in the region.

The importance of early warning cannot be overemphasized. In 2004, the world experienced the Indian Ocean Tsunami. It killed over 250,000 people and wasone of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded. Unlikethe Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean had no early warning system in place for coastal communities. Thanks toa founding contribution of $10 million from Thailand, the ESCAP Trust Fund for Tsunami, Disaster and Climate Preparedness,has helped to plug this gap. But for a tsunami warning system to be sustainable, it needs to address multiple coastal hazards. Regional cooperation can help share vital innovations in science and technology to strengthen tsunami early warning systems. ESCAP’s Trust Fund has helped to empower people through improved early warning of disasters and supported knowledge transfer from countries with strong disaster risk management capabilities to other Asia-Pacific countries.  To take just one example, technical support, modern equipment and on-line technologies helped upgrade the Myanmar National Earthquake Data Center, to meet international standards for tsunami warning centres.

ESCAP, in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand, is organizingan event at the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly, entitled ‘Disaster Risk Reduction in Asia Pacific: achievements in regional cooperation for tsunami, disaster and climate preparedness’ to explore these issues further. It will take place on21 September 2017, furtherpresenting ESCAP’s researchandshowcasing the ESCAP Trust Fund’s contribution to building people’s resilience to disasters, so that no one is left behind in pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Dr. Shamshad Akhtar is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) and the Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

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