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UN: Rising Natural-Disaster Costs Leave All at Risk

Asia-Pacific map
Asia-Pacific map

A United Nations regional economic commission says the Asia-Pacific region faces rising human and economic costs from natural disasters in the coming decades, unless regional governments take steps to invest in disaster mitigation.

The human and economic toll from natural disasters affecting the Asia-Pacific is rising, with rapid economic growth, rising populations and urbanization leaving all societies at risk.

The Asia-Pacific is the most prone to natural calamities in the world, having faced more than 1,600 disasters over the past decade, claiming an estimated half a million lives at a economic cost of over $520 billion.

A special report Tuesday by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) says those numbers will keep rising unless governments have the political will to invest in disaster-risk mitigation.

The report "Disasters Without Borders" says the risks from natural disasters are exacerbated by rapid growth, rising populations and the spread of urban development.

More intense disasters

Shamshad Akhtar, a U.N. under-secretary-general who is executive secretary of UNESCAP, said more frequent, much larger and more intense disasters are a grave concern. This was highlighted by this week's Himalayan region earthquake that claimed hundreds of lives.

“The threats are increasing, but more so trans-boundary threats, because disasters do not respect borders." said Akhtar. "It could be seismic fault lines — as we have just witnessed in what happened in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and across from Afghanistan to the China borders — tropical cyclones, which we experience very much sitting in the center, and droughts and floods also.”

By 2030, the U.N. report predicts, disaster losses in the region could average $160 billion a year, up from just over $50 billion annually now.

Growing urban populations, often faced with inadequate basic services, such as roads, water supplies and sewerage disposal, leave poorer populations especially at risk.

High risk

The report says that about 740 million city dwellers in Asia and the Pacific are at extreme to high disaster risk, often vulnerable to cyclones, earthquakes, floods and landslides.

The region’s once robust natural environment offering a defense against natural disasters has also been weakened. Drought is highlighted along with the challenges of rising demands on food production and resources.

The U.N. is calling on regional governments to show the political will to invest in disaster mitigation measures and reduce future human and economic costs.

Fiji’s minister responsible for national disaster management, Inia Batikoto Seruiratu, said his government has increased spending in a bid to reduce the future impact from natural disasters, especially cyclones.

“We have been allocating funds on disaster risk reduction and of course I have been told that there’ll be the allocation for next year, probably doubled or tripled, which is good," said Seruiratu. "We need that political will and commitment. As I have stated DR [disaster risk] is an investment. It’s not an expense, and we need to invest in DR so that we can sustain sustainable development. “

The U.N. report calls on governments to build resilience into their disaster-management planning, along with better information systems, and for improved regional cooperation.