Asia: Rising economic star or poster child for disaster?

By Janice Ian Manlutac   July 11, 2018 | 12:13 am PT
Asia: Rising economic star or poster child for disaster?
Erosion in a river at Can Tho City in Vietnam's Mekong Delta on May 21, 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Cuu Long
Asia must race against time to prepare its citizens for an uncertain future.

Emerging Asia, which covers India, China, and Southeast Asia, will be revelling in an economic growth rate of 6.3 percent annually from 2018 to 2022, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. 

But there’s a hitch: Asia is also waist-deep in alarming projections of deaths, damages to livelihoods and properties, and worsening inequality because of disasters and climate change.

Asia’s robust economic growth is not underwritten. The latest assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s largest scientific body formed to study climate change, found that “People living in low-lying coastal zones and floodplains are probably most at risk from climate change impacts in Asia. Half of Asia’s urban population lives in these areas. Compounding the risk for coastal communities, Asia has more than 90 percent of the global population exposed to tropical cyclones.”

Poverty and inequality in Asia’s populous, but also rich, cities could spell doom for Asia’s economy. Governments may not be equipped to handle the brisk pace of poor people from rural areas migrating to urban migration in droves.

Poor transportation infrastructure and policies, weak urban design, and extreme weather events create a perfect storm of risk—water-borne diseases, loss of income from punishing traffic jams, and damaged livelihood assets—for poor people living in cities.

Asia loses money to disasters at a staggering price tag of at least $4.5 billion annually.

Many farmers do not know about nor have access to capital or technology for climate-adaptive cropping techniques. Super typhoons, like Haiyan in 2013, can wipe out swathes of land planted to agricultural crops, ruining the source of livelihoods of farmers.

To protect the future of Asia, leaders attending the 8th Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (AMCDRR) in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, this week should strengthen the ability of local organizations and communities to deal with disasters, invest in social safety nets, and pour more funds into disaster risk reduction work. These three key actions will ensure that Asia is prepared for the harrowing impacts of climate change and disasters that will batter the region.

Transforming the global humanitarian system

At the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, donors and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) signed the “Grand Bargain”, an agreement that seeks to empower local organizations to lead humanitarian work instead of INGOs.

Local organizations know the local context better and enjoy smoother working relationships with local governments than INGOs. However, local NGOs are merely sub-contracted by INGOs during emergencies and are not involved in designing or leading responses.

Local NGOs’ share of humanitarian funds is also miniscule. The Global Humanitarian Assistance 2015 report found that in 2014 only 0.2 percent of humanitarian funding was coursed through local NGOs. Meanwhile, a 2015 report from the Overseas Development Institute found that United Nations agencies and large INGOs receive about 80 percent of funding from developed countries.

Asian ministers must continue to lobby with donors and INGOs to realize the vision of the Grand Bargain. They must build the capacity of their national disaster management offices, transforming these into centers of excellence that combine local knowledge with state-of-the-art technology to respond to disasters.

The promise of social safety nets

Shocks and stresses negatively affect poor countries more acutely than rich countries. South Asia, for example, suffers from floods 15 times greater, as a percentage of GDP, than OECD countries.

Safety nets like insurance, conditional cash transfers, minimum wage legislation, and access to essential services are crucial for poor people to bounce back from a crisis. Any humanitarian intervention therefore must form part of or support sustainable development programs.

Putting social protection mechanisms will also “support the reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work by, for example, supporting parental leave and basic income for older persons. Without these measures, it is predominantly women who will spend the time and meet the costs of caring for children or the elderly,” according to an Oxfam report.

More funds for disaster risk reduction

Disaster risk financing (DRF) is crucial in promoting resilience. Complemented with a mix of solutions and political will, DRF has proven to be cost-effective.

Funding from the OECD DAC countries on DRR ranged between 2.9 percent and 6.2 percent of total humanitarian spending over the past five years, increasing incrementally over the period.

The 2018 AMCDRR is a chance to push for more international financing for DRR. The calls for governments to deal with disasters have grown more urgent as crisis after crisis unravels in Asia.

Home to eight of top ten countries with the most number of disasters over the period 2004 to 2015, according to the Asian Development Bank, Asia must race against time to prepare its citizens for an uncertain future. Only then can it hope to free its growing economy from the grip of disasters.

*Janice Ian Manlutac is Asia Pacific Regional Program Manager at Oxfam America Humanitarian Department.

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