Fiji + 3 more

Adapting to disasters is our only choice

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Natural disasters are not one-off events so require a more integrated, long-term response, writes Robert Tickner.

THE past five years have been bracketed by the most devastating natural disasters in the region's history: the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which claimed the lives of 226,000 people across 14 countries and the unprecedented triple punch of an earthquake, tsunami and typhoon three months ago. These disasters understandably received blanket media coverage, outlining the unfolding catastrophe, the mounting human toll, and then the extensive humanitarian relief effort. This neat, closed account, however, has created the perception that they are one off events, with a clear end point. It overlooks the increasingly frequent nature of disasters, often linked to climate change, the Asia-Pacific region has experienced in the past five years.

Straddling the 'Ring of Fire?' - the meeting point of Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates - Indonesia registers an average of 400 earthquakes with a magnitude of 4.0 or above annually. Since 2004, major earthquakes have hit Sumatra, Yogyakarta and West Java, claiming thousands of lives. Deadly tsunami waves have also struck Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in recent years. In one Solomon Islands community, not realising the danger, people walked down to the sea to watch in awe as it receded several kilometers before being swept away with the incoming tidal surge. Earlier this year, Fiji was hit with massive flooding, affecting 10,000 people. These major catastrophes are compounded by an increasing number of localised, smaller scale events, increasing the average number of disasters per month in the Asia-Pacific from 21 in 2004 to 51 in 2008.

Disasters such as these are often stereotyped as 'acts of God' or of 'mother nature'. Instead, in many recent 'natural' disasters, there is a distinctly 'man-made' dimension. They are more often the permanent condition of many of the world's poorest. Economic patterns have ensured the concentration of poor communities in high-risk areas, such as during Hurricane Katrina, or in terms of structural social inequalities that render particular groups such as women or the elderly especially vulnerable. As a result, developing countries account for 95 per cent of deaths from physical disasters and experience economic losses up to 20 times greater, as a percentage of GDP, than 'developed' countries.

All the evidence indicates that the risks to these vulnerable communities are set to intensify in line with the frequency and severity of physical disasters due to global warming. Rising sea levels are already a growing problems for the sprawling archipelago to our north, with coastal towns and even the capital, Jakarta, increasingly vulnerable to tidal surges and waves. The future is possibly even more dire to our east, where the mainly low-lying Pacific island communities face intensifying climatic and geological dangers. In Papua New Guinea, a remote community on the Carteret Islands in Bougainville is among the first recorded people to have lost their ancestral lands to rising sea levels.

For these communities, some of the world's poorest, effective disaster management and adaption measures are becoming increasingly urgent. A properly resourced regional strategy is needed which is fully supported by governments and decision makers, and implemented at the community level.

At a local level, disaster preparedness has already proven to be successful and cost effective, with early warning and early action, as well as preparedness measures, saving more lives and livelihoods per dollar spent than traditional disaster response. Its effectiveness was demonstrated recently in Samoa, where church bells rang out as a tsunami warning. Red Cross volunteers - well trained in tsunami preparedness drills - helped villagers evacuate to pre-identified sites on higher ground. When the latest quake struck the city of Padang in West Sumatra, a trained network of radio operators swung into action keeping vital lines of communication open between Indonesian Red Cross in Jakarta and its field offices in the quake zone. Pre-positioned emergency relief items in the area meant that help was immediately at hand for survivors and 200 disaster response volunteers immediately fanned out into affected areas to assess urgent needs.

At a global level, the international community now needs to step up risk reduction measures significantly in the face of ever more extreme and frequent disaster. The incredible generosity that was uncovered following the 2004 Asia Quake and Tsunami, and then repeated this year must be harnessed to help communities adapt to known weather and seismic events and new disasters emerging from changing climate patterns. At the same time, international donors must honour their commitments to increase funding towards risk reduction initiatives.

Responding effectively to disasters will always be essential but nothing is more effective than preparing for disasters and preventing them. Indeed, is this not our moral obligation to the thousands who have lost their lives in natural disasters over the past five years?