On 20 May, ahead of the second UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-2), the United Nations Environment Programme launched the Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6) Regional Assessment for Asia and the Pacific.

GEO-6 emphasizes policy options to enable the Asia Pacific region to “leapfrog” to resilient, low-carbon, green growth, based on smarter solutions, technological innovation and regional cooperation.

Frank Thomalla, a senior research fellow in SEI’s Asia Centre, was coordinating lead author of a chapter titled “Increasing vulnerability to the impacts of natural hazards and extreme events”. Below he discusses the chapter’s key messages.

Q: The Asia-Pacific region has more disasters caused by natural hazards than any other part of the world. What makes it so?
FT: The main reason for the high risk from natural hazards in many places in Asia Pacific is their level of exposure – the presence of people, infrastructure, and economic, social and cultural activities and assets in places that could be adversely affected by hazards.

Exposure is high and increasing because of high population density and rapid urbanization, much of which is unplanned, in coastal and island locations that are frequently affected by tropical cyclones, floods, storm surges and, in some cases, tsunamis. Many countries are also located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur.

Q: Disaster data show a sharp increase in disasters from 1960 until 2000, and then a roughly steady (but high) rate of disasters since. What is behind that trend?
FT: To a large extent, it reflects increasing exposure. Climate change is likely to have contributed as well, but to a lesser extent. The role of climate change is also difficult to gauge because disaster risk is the result of a number of complex and interacting socio-economic and environmental processes. The steadier rate in recent years reflects the fact that although population growth and urbanization rates are still high, they are starting to slow.

Q: How does climate change affect the outlook for the region?
FT: Climate change is causing sea-level rise and leading to more frequent and intense weather-related hazard events. Millions of people in Southeast Asia and the Pacific living in low-lying coastal areas and small islands are at risk, and this number is expected to increase dramatically over the next few decades as population growth and urbanization continue. Small island states in the Pacific, such as Tonga and Vanuatu, already have the world’s highest risk and may become uninhabitable in the near future due to submergence, coastal flooding, and coastal erosion.

Q: What are the implications of disaster trends for migration?
FT: Millions of people in Asia Pacific are displaced by disasters caused by natural hazards every year. For example, during 2010–2011, more than 42 million people were displaced as a result of extreme weather events; 90% of displacements within countries due to disasters were due to climate-related hazards. If this trend continues, which it is expected to do because of climate change, whole nation states are likely to become uninhabitable in the near future.

As those people will need to find a new home in other countries, the implications for national and cultural identity, sovereignty, and international cooperation on migration and asylum become apparent. But climate change is not the only cause of migration. Environmental degradation, growing inequalities, and regional economic integration also drive the mass movement of people in Asia Pacific.

Q: What about the role of urbanization?
FT: The processes of urbanization and the related factors leading to increasing disaster vulnerability in cities are not well understood. More research is needed to explore which urbanization processes drive vulnerability to hazards, and how vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities differ among social groups (e.g. women, children, the elderly, migrants, people with disabilities). We need to learn more about the changes in urban planning that would yield the greatest benefits in terms of building more sustainable, equitable and resilient cities.

Q: To the extent that disaster impacts are exacerbated by development choices, could smarter choices reduce the region’s vulnerability?
FT: Disaster vulnerability could be significantly reduced by pursuing development choices that minimize the risks posed by natural hazards and climate change, or that avoid such risks from the outset. This requires a much more forward-looking, precautionary approach to examine potential trade-offs before development decisions are made.

Taking a systems perspective, as SEI’s Initiative on Transforming Development and Disaster Risk does, helps to understand which development choices lead to disaster risk, and how disaster risk reduction efforts can support more sustainable and resilient development.

For example, exposure could be reduced by avoiding high-risk locations for new developments, improving building codes to strengthen or elevate dwellings and critical infrastructure, and creating open spaces to better accommodate high levels of water flow during a flood. There is also a growing interest in approaches to disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation that emphasize the value of ecosystems for risk reduction.      

Q: How important are explicit measures to reduce disaster risk?
FT: Disaster risk reduction is very important, but we need to do it better. Many people experiencing frequent disasters have developed a range of skills to deal with those risks, but in some places, they have been forgotten or ignored by disaster managers. In others they are still successfully applied despite the often bureaucratic and technocratic approaches imposed by the authorities. Other places still are experiencing new types of hazards or increased levels of frequency and intensity of familiar hazards they have not experienced before.

In each case the approaches will be different, depending on the local context. Enhancing disaster preparedness and response capacities of inhabitants and authorities through improved planning and risk management approaches, education and awareness campaigns, improved early warning systems, and “building back better” recovery approaches are laudable goals. But what is really needed is a rethink of disaster risk reduction.

We need to a) truly address the underlying causes of risk related to poverty, inequality and marginalization and b) break down the traditional barriers between the development, humanitarian, disaster risk reduction, and climate change adaptation “communities”, in order to address the common goal of reducing human suffering and increasing well-being.

Read the GEO-6 Asia Pacific Assessment (external link to PDF)

Read a factsheet summarizing the report (external link to PDF)