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Prevention, Not Cure
Addressing Southeast Asia’s Nature Woes

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by IBR SEA
25 May 2015
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Anniversaries are often associated with celebration, yet there were no fetes to mark the 10th year of one of Southeast Asia’s most catastrophic events. The 26th of December 2014 marked one decade since the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which wreaked havoc in Indonesia and Thailand, as well as (to a lesser extent) Malaysia and Myanmar. Inflicting more than US$15b in damages, the disaster also claimed the lives of more than 135,000 people in these countries, around 130,000 of whom were in Indonesia. While the incident may have been the worst natural disaster to affect Southeast Asia in recent times, it was by no means the first nor has it been the last time that Nature unleashed her fury on the region.

The Most Disaster-Prone Region

According to the United Nations Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2014, the Asia-Pacific is the world’s most natural disaster-prone area, accounting for 41.2% or 1,690 incidents of reported natural disasters worldwide from 2004 to 2013. Out of these, more than 500 occurrences took place in Indonesia and the Philippines, resulting in 350,000 fatalities.

The geography of Southeast Asia counts against it. It is located within the ‘Pacific Rim of Fire’, where 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur, while torrential rain and tropical storms are common during the monsoon season from May to September and from November to March, every year. In addition, there are 750 active and dormant volcanoes in the region, mostly in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Since 2004, Southeast Asian countries have been affected by a number of other natural calamities. Although the death tolls and costs were not as high as that of the Boxing Day disaster, their impact was still damaging, considering they caused destruction in some of the region’s least developed communities.

Earth Trembles in Indonesia

In May 2006, an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale shook the Indonesian island of Java, just 20 km away from Yogyakarta, resulting in 5,700 deaths and injuring more than 37,000 people, as well as causing US$3.1b in damages. Several months later in July, another earthquake – this time with a magnitude of 7.7 – rocked Pangandaran in Java, and caused tidal waves and more than 600 deaths.

Although several more earthquakes occurred in Indonesia after 2006, the most destructive was the Sumatra earthquake in September 2009. More than 1,100 people were killed by the 7.9 magnitude tremor and its aftershocks, while damages were estimated at US$137m.

Sometimes, a natural disaster does not have to cause many fatalities to be devastating. For example, the eruption of the Mt Merapi volcano in Java in November 2010 claimed more than 300 lives. At the same time, it displaced more than 300,000 people who were living in the vicinity, most of whom were farmers who had to abandon their only means of livelihood.

Ill-Winds in the Philippines

While the earth may shake in Indonesia, the region’s second largest archipelago – the Philippines is plagued by ill-winds and a number of tropical storms have devastated the nation over the past decade. In November 2006 Typhoon Durian made landfall on the island of Luzon, bringing with it heavy rain and winds with speeds of 100km/h.

Nearly 1,400 people perished from the destruction caused by Durian, while damages were valued at approximately US$130m. Just two years later in June 2008,Typhoon Fengshen caused a similar number of fatalities with losses estimated at US$301m. 2009 saw two typhoons – Ketsana and Parma – make landfall in September and October respectively. While fatalities from both were below 1,000, the damages from the two stood at US$244m for the former and US$608m for the latter.

The worst destruction, in terms of lives lost and cost of damage was by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013. For more than a week, the cyclone’s winds – which reached a peak speed of more than 300km/h – and heavy rain battered the country. The final confirmed death toll was more than 6,200 while total damages stood at more than US$2b.

Outside of Indonesia and the Philippines, other major natural disasters to hit Southeast Asia include Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which killed more than 130,000 people and caused more than US$10b of damages in Myanmar, and the 2011 floods in Thailand that resulted in more than 800 fatalities, damages of more than US$45b, and affected more than 13 million people.

Infrastructural Woes

There are several reasons why natural disasters in Southeast Asia have such high impact. According to the International Policy Digest, among these are the lack of proper coordination between member states and the lack of capacity by local disaster relief agencies to cope with the situation.

To illustrate, the journal highlights, “In Southeast Asia, the responsibility for collecting disaster-related information falls squarely on national governments... But given the bureaucratic tendency to hoard information, disaster relief agencies are typically given less than what they need to accurately assess a disaster situation.”

Poverty also compounds the problem. Most of the worst affected people are inadequately prepared to handle the effects of floods, typhoons and earthquakes. For instance, their homes are often makeshift ones, ill-equipped to withstand the force of such disasters.

The Curse of Poverty

At the same time, these calamities severely hinder poverty reduction programmes in the affected countries. This was highlighted by Dr Tom Mitchell, head of climate studies at the London-based think-tank The Overseas Development Institute, who pointed out in a 2013 interview with The Wall Street Journal that there is evidence that disasters “drop people into poverty.”

To emphasise his point, Dr Mitchell highlighted how “they (natural disasters) destroy crops, they destroy the facilities that people rely on, like health facilities, they make it hard for people to move around because of damages to roads. They could cause people to pull their children out of school, and they can cause malnutrition.”

The lack of infrastructure is also a huge obstacle for relief agencies and governments. During times of natural calamities, among the first to be affected are lines of communications and access, rendering delivery of aid more challenging.

This becomes a chicken-and-egg situation, as countries which are severely affected by natural disasters usually need to spend a portion of their limited budgets on disaster relief. In such a situation, they are unable to allocate the necessary resources to disaster prevention and mitigation.

Ultimately, what is needed is better coordination in Southeast Asia for disaster prevention and relief. Since 2013, efforts have been made to create a more integrated, intra-regional means of responding to natural calamities. However, much of it is focused on responding after the fact. It may be timely to start considering the establishment of an Asean initiative to address infrastructural problems in member countries before disaster strikes particularly those that suffer the most losses during emergencies.

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