Disasters in Asia: the Case for Legal Preparedness

Introduction

Floods. Tropical storms. Earthquakes. Tsunamis. Landslides. Droughts. Disasters are a part of everyday life and they are increasing.

Nowhere are they increasing faster and with greater ferocity than in Asia Pacific, the world's most disaster-prone region where, on average, 40 per cent of the globe's "natural" catastrophe occurs. Witness such events as 2010's Pakistan superflood, 2009's ravaging typhoons in the Philippines, or 2008's Cyclone Nargis and Sichuan earthquake. Nargis killed more than 138,000 people in Myanmar and the earthquake left almost 87,500 dead in China: mind-numbing catastrophes that accounted for 93 per cent of the world's total disaster deaths that year. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 provided a similar statistic: 226,400 deaths in a world total of just over 242,000.

Statistics, meanwhile, tell us only what is recorded. If they tell us that from 2000 to 2009 some 2,159,714,852 people were affected by Asian disasters those are only the ones the statisticians know about. Untold numbers of others suffered as well but their plight was never recorded because many smaller disasters - that nonetheless devastate people's lives - go unnoticed.

But however the numbers are counted, they amount to this: today in Asia Pacific, disaster is a daily occurrence. Often, it is more than daily. In Indonesia, government statistics show that, over a 12-month period, the average has been as high as 2.75 disasters a day, most of which passed largely unnoticed by the international community.

The outlook offers no respite, and governments and societies across Asia Pacific realize new challenges face us in a rapidly changing world. How we responded yesterday will not meet the needs of tomorrow. With climate change and the increasing severity of meteorological events, with the increasing numbers of people living in precarious situations, with irregular migration, urbanization, environmental degradation, large scale displacement, public health crises and ever more complex emergencies - we can be sure of that.

Disasters, however, are rarely natural. Only hazards are. Disasters are failures to cope with them. When a storm or volcanic eruption rains down its fury, the vulnerability of our communities, the fragility of our homes, the exposure of our lands, property and livelihoods determine whether and how much we will suffer. The human factor is the difference between a natural event and a disaster.

Good legislation is critical

Good laws and legal frameworks are essential to how we reduce the risks, and how we prepare and respond. Presidents and parliaments cannot order the atmosphere to cool down or the earth to stay still but they can do a great deal to reduce the human suffering that growing disasters bring.

Good legislation has the power to help communities become less vulnerable, to strengthen their ability to deal with the hazards they face and to smooth the path of rescue services, humanitarian aid and recovery help when they are needed.

Weak legal frameworks and policies, on the other hand, can put people closer to harm's way, undermine efforts to help them and lead to unfair and unsatisfying results in the aftermath of a disaster.

This is why encouraging stronger, more inclusive, and fairer disaster legislation is so important to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). As independent auxiliaries to public authorities in the humanitarian field, its member National Societies are responsible for providing governments with the best advice they can gather from their long experience in dealing with disasters.

This report highlights three areas where we know that law can make a key difference in Asia Pacific and where the Red Cross and Red Crescent is supporting governments to tackle the problems.