Asia Bears the Brunt of Natural Disasters

Although the final toll isn’t in yet from Super Typhoon Bopha, which devastated the southern Philippine islands of Mindanao and Visayas, United Nations agencies say fewer people have died so far in 2012 than in previous years in natural disasters.

However, such calamities claimed more lives in Asia between January and October than anywhere else on the planet, What’s more, analysts expect the toll to rise in future years as populations and industries expand in a region that already houses the world’s largest number of urban residents and as weather events grow ever more severe because of climate change. Growing populations are pushing more and more onto flood plains and environmentally vulnerable regions where they are disastrously at risk, as in the Compostela Valley in northern Mindanao, which had been environmentally devastated by illegal mining and logging before being hit 10 days ago.

Tropical Storm Bopha, known as Pablo in the Philippines, is a case in point. PAGASA, the national weather forecasting agency, reported eight days in advance that the storm was on its way and described its track. People were moved into typhoon shelters in Mindanao and the Visayas, which bore the brunt of the storm, dubbed a super typhoon generating sustained winds of more than 200 km per hour.

Despite whatever preparedness the government was able to put in place, at least 700 died, the bulk of them in the Campostela Valley, with hundreds still missing. Another 300 tuna fishermen from General Santos City, at the southern tip of Mindanao, were caught at sea when the storm hit and most are feared dead. It is perhaps unfair to make comparisons, but Hurricane Sandy, a storm of similar magnitude that swept the eastern seaboard of the United States, generating three-meter storm surges in New York and other states, is believed to have killed 85 people, still a sizeable number but nowhere near what has too often befallen Asian regions.

That is because in too many parts of Asia, including the Philippines, too many people who are unlucky enough to be scraping out a living on the margins of an unregulated economy are left to the elements, as one observer told Asia Sentinel. Likewise, Very Severe Cyclonic Storm Nargis, which hit Burma in May 2008, hit an utterly unprepared country, killing at least 138,000 people – and that number was picked because the government at that point stopped counting for fear of political fallout. Another 55,000 were thought to be missing.

“Cities are growing. There will be even more people and factories. If you think we have a problem now, we will have even more in the future,” said Jerry Velasquez, head of the Asia-Pacific office for the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. The agency estimates the number of people living in flood-prone urban areas in East Asia may reach 67 million by 2060.

“…it is the world’s poorest communities within lower and middle-income countries that are most exposed. Losses of income among these groups is already extreme,” according to the Switzerland-based DARA, an NGO seeking to improve the quality and effective of aid for vulnerable populations. “The world’s principal objectives for poverty reduction, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), are therefore under comprehensive pressures, in particular as a result of climate change.

The impact for rural and coastal communities in the lowest-income settings implies serious threats for food security and extreme poverty.”

The Belgian-based Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), which maintains a database of natural disasters worldwide, called for more regional cooperation on disaster data gathering, more work translating science for policymakers and the public, and more grassroots research on the needs of those affected, especially farmers.

Below are 10 highlights from the preliminary 2012 data on natural disasters in 28 Asian countries, released by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and CRED on Dec. 11. Countries in the region reported 83 disasters - mostly floods - in 2012, which killed some 3,100 people, affected 64.5 million and left behind US$15 billion in damage. That figure could rise with Bopha, which is estimated to have left millions in Mindanao without aid.

Worldwide, according to the two agencies, 231 disasters killed some 5,400 people, affected 87 million and caused $44.6 billion in damage. From 1950 to 2011, nine out of 10 people affected by disasters worldwide were in Asia.

One of the region’s hardest-hit countries this year (and this past decade) was the Philippines. Since 2002, the country has had 182 recorded disasters, which killed almost 11,000 people. This figure does not include casualties from Tropical Storm Bopha, nicknamed Pedro in the Philippines. As Dec. 4, more than 600 were listed as dead with 800 are reported missing.

Of the top five disasters that created the most damage this year, three were in China, and the other two were in Pakistan and Iran. Cumulatively, these events resulted in an estimated $13.3 billion in damage. China led the list of most disasters in 2012 (18), followed by Philippines (16), Indonesia (10), Afghanistan (9) and India (5). China was called the only “multi-hazard”-prone country. In the others, including Pakistan, 85 percent of damage came from one event, calling into question efforts to cultivate “multi-hazard” resiliency, said CRED.

Two-hazard countries included Afghanistan (drought and flood); Bangladesh and Vietnam (flood and storm); and India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (flood and earthquake). In the past decade, Indonesia and the Philippines have had many disasters but relatively few affected people, while Bangladesh and Thailand have had fewer disasters and more affected, while Pakistan and Vietnam fell in between the two categories. These numbers offer a sign of how prepared these respective countries were to face emergencies, researchers noted.

Pakistan suffered large-scale loss of life from floods for the third successive year; from August to October, 480 people died in floods. June-July floods in China affected over 17 million people and caused the most economic loss in the region -- US$4.8 billion.

(With reporting by IRIN, a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)