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April 28, 2013

UN Official Calls on Asia-Pacific Region to Reduce Disaster Risks

by Ron Corben

A regional economic meeting in Bangkok this week is focusing on helping Asia's economies become more resilient to natural disasters and financial shocks.  A senior U.N. official warns weak accountability and poor governance are undermining such efforts.

U.N. Under Secretary General Noeleen Heyzer says more accountability is needed, given growing threats from natural disasters and the impact of human-caused crises in the Asia Pacific region.

According to U.N. reports, the Asia-Pacific remains the most disaster-prone region - with about 2.5-million people affected and nearly 800,000 lives lost during the past decade.  The region was also shaken by the financial crisis of the late 1990s that left millions in poverty, and more recently affected by debt issues in Europe and the United States.

Heyzer says there are a number of policy changes that can be used to reduce disaster risk, but greater accountability needs to be addressed.

"Strengthening building codes is one, looking at land use, where are you locating communities, how are you allowing organizations to actually grow and so on," said Heyzer.  "At the same time, if you are looking at the financial crisis, it is time to really ask for greater accountability at the global-financial-system level and to prevent the type of speculation - more accountability."

Heyzer said last week's garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, which claimed more 350 lives, highlights the need for accountability.

"The Bangladesh collapse; there was early warning there were cracks; but there is no point having early warning when there is no early action," said Heyzer.  "So this is the thing about accountability.  The workers see the cracks in the building, they complain, who takes this up?  That is where the accountable government comes in."

Heyzer heads the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.  She voiced her concerns as UNESCAP economists released a report on building resilience into policy as a way to better prepare for natural disasters and other crises in the region.

UNESCAP Trade Section chief Shamika Sirimanne says overlapping and increasingly large-scale shocks, ranging from natural to man-made, remain a threat as development increases competition for natural resources, including water and land.

She says given the uncertainties, governments need to boost social protection, especially for the poor and vulnerable.

"Everything affects the same group of people," said Sirimanne.  "Itis the poor, the poorest of the poor, living below $2 a day, they are also affected.  So we want government to be aware of that.  We want governments to take every action at the macro-economic level.  They need to keep that in mind, addressing shock, but my main purpose should be avoiding this shock."

Sirimanne says there is a need to ensure that disaster risk reduction is a priority, given the impact of increasingly severe weather patterns due to climate change.

Disaster mitigation and development will be key concerns at this week's meeting of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.  Ministers and senior officials from more than 60 member nations will be involved.