Water disasters in the region: A clarion call for action


November 12, 2011

The past 12 months have seen a spate of flood-related disasters in the Asia-Pacific region.

Many parts of eastern Australia, China and Pakistan were under water. Japan was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami, resulting in extensive inundation. Even the Mississippi River basin suffered from one of its worst floods in a century. Several Southeast Asian countries were also ravaged by floods. The most severely affected was Thailand. The deluge swamped the rice bowl and industrial heartland of the country, including Bangkok, making it one of the worst disasters in the country’s history.

These calamities have caused enormous losses and difficulties, economically and socially, with ripple effects around the world through supply chain disruptions. The fallout from stalled industrial output and associated loss in employment and income, compounded by reduction in agricultural production, with the probable rise in food prices will likely mean an increase in vulnerability, if not outright poverty. There is now serious concern of a setback to human development, with heightened insecurity and misery.

If the sayings “every cloud has a silver lining” or “in any crisis, there is also an opportunity” are meaningful, then two upcoming gatherings of leaders from the Asia-Pacific region within a span of a week will present a golden opportunity to seriously address the management of water and other disasters via timely and concrete collective action.

The leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec), comprising 21 economies around the Pacific Rim, including seven members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), are meeting in Honolulu this weekend to discuss, among other things, disaster-related challenges. As part of this event, a High-Level Dialogue on Disaster Resilience comprising both government and private-sector leaders will be held with the aim of sharing experiences on public-private partnerships in disaster preparedness.

Apec has a Working Group on Emergency Preparedness to address various disaster issues faced by member economies. It has convened numerous forums and produced a region-wide strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Preparedness and Response for 2009-2015. Interestingly, workshops on topics such as “Public-Private Partnerships and Disaster Resilience”, “Facing Abnormal Flood Disaster” and “Private Sector Emergency Preparedness” were held within the past year or so.

In a week’s time, the Asean Summit and related summits with dialogue partners will be held in Bali. Leaders from 14 of the 21 Apec economies will be represented, to be joined by the three (non-Apec) Asean members plus India and the UN. Discussions on disaster issues will feature prominently.

Asean has already established a Committee on Disaster Management and has an Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER). This is expected to become fully operational with the formal launch of the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA) at the Bali summit. The AHA Centre will serve as the coordination hub and focal point for mobilisation of resources to disaster-affected areas in the Asean region.

Asean deployed an Emergency Rapid Assessment Team in response to the flooding in Thailand to identify basic and immediate needs. Indonesia, the current chair of Asean, provided US$3.1 million to six flood-affected countries in Asean, as a goodwill gesture in the spirit of solidarity. Earlier this week, Asean and the World Bank/GFDRR and UNISDR convened an Asean Disaster Risk Financing Forum in Jakarta to help member countries build greater financial resilience to natural disasters.

Since 2005, Asean has conducted annual disaster emergency response simulation exercises, and under its defence cooperation with dialogue partners has also held periodic search-and-rescue and disaster relief exercises. Moreover, Asean, primarily through its Working Group on Water Resources Management, and in cooperation with its external partners, has implemented workshops as well as prepared strategic plans addressing both flood and drought and other water-management issues.

As the countries in the region pursue the aims of minimising water-related disaster risk and putting in place appropriate protection measures, a few thoughts come to mind.

Effective management of any natural resource like water is a function of the physical infrastructure, or hardware, as well as the social institutions/organisational, or software. As is often observed, the latter tends to be more crucial than the former in many instances, and, if not managed well, can actually exacerbate the problem. Integrated water resources management (IWRM) has been advocated for development and utilisation of water resources in a coordinated, equitable and sustainable fashion. Implicitly, IWRM involves an inter-disciplinary, participatory and multi-stakeholder approach.

While the current problem facing the Pacific Rim may be flooding due to the prevailing La Nina climatic phenomenon, which generally brings more rainfall to certain regions, the situation could soon shift to drought conditions during the alternate phase of the climatic occurrence known as El Nino. Adding to the climate variation due to global warming, harder-to-predict events such as extremely wet, dry, hot and cold spells are likely to occur with greater frequency and severity, as reported recently by climate scientists.

Planning for uncertainties is becoming the norm. Putting in place well-thought-out contingency measures and coping mechanisms while also having effective crisis management systems would go a long way to addressing disaster-related challenges. Ensuring sufficient cooperation on these initiatives from all sectors of society would be critical to their success.

In facing the multi-dimensional challenges of today’s world in a more proactive way, some paradigm shifts, mindset changes and perhaps alternative approaches may be required. Human beings are, however, generally learning-oriented, and thus the saying, “necessity is the mother of invention”, can still provide hope.

With this year’s flood incidences around the Pacific Rim, the time is certainly ripe for countries in the region to take more concerted actions on effectively addressing disaster matters in a holistic manner – from prevention and risk reduction to preparedness and response – with the aim of building disaster-resilient and safer communities. The combined knowledge, expertise, resources and goodwill around the region and globally are enormous and ready to be tapped. There should be no reason for not rapidly deploying them when and where needed. All that is required is political will, enlightened leadership, streamlined procedures and, above all, a spirit of common resolve and partnership to put the various plans and strategies that have been drawn up into effective action.

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