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UN: Natural Disasters Pose Serious Economic Threat to Asia

Residents cross a river with the body of a child after retrieving it from the flash flood-hit village of Andap, in New Bataan township, Compostela Valley in southern Philippines, December 5, 2012.
A new United Nations report assessing the impact of global disasters says Asia remains the most vulnerable region, especially China, where the economic toll in 2012 exceeded $10 billion. Economists warn the disasters may represent a serious threat to the region’s otherwise healthy economies.

The joint report launched by the U.N.’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Asian Development Bank says Asia Pacific is the world's most disaster prone region.

In 2012, alone, in South and East Asia, there have been earthquakes, storms and other natural disasters affecting 65 million people and cost $15 billion. That figure is a drop from 2011 when the region recorded a staggering $300 billion loss because, in large part, of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami and Thailand’s floods.

“Asia is extremely disaster prone region and thus a very high increase in its trend over time from 1950 onwards," explains Debby Sapir, director of the Brussels-based Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. "Asia’s share in the last 10 years is also extremely important. About 90 percent of the total affected population in the world are in Asia and almost all of the other deaths, the economic losses and the numbers of events are all rather high in Asia.”

Typhoon Bopha

Residents cross a river using suspended ropes at Andap, New Bataan township, Compostela Valley in southern Philippines, Dec. 5, 2012, a day after Typhoon Bopha made landfall.
Residents cross a river using suspended ropes at Andap, New Bataan township, Compostela Valley in southern Philippines, Dec. 5, 2012, a day after Typhoon Bopha made landfall.
In the Philippines, the recent toll from Typhoon Bopha - the 17th natural disaster to hit the country this year - has claimed more than 600 lives and more than 300,000 people displaced.

Jerry Velasquez, head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction for Asia Pacific, says that, although communities in Philippines and regions such as Bangladesh have been able to better prepare for disasters to reduce the impact, the economic losses are continuing to rise.

“Economic losses are going through the roof. If you look at the overall trend on economic losses it’s mainly driven by increasing exposure of people and economic activities - on flood prone areas and cyclone prone areas,” he says.

Velasquez adds that the number of people living in flood prone regions in Asia has more than doubled, in the past 40 years, to more than 60 million. About 120 million people live in areas exposed to cyclones.

Economic impact

As Asian nations have gotten wealthier, the economic impact of the storms has also risen. Now, with more factories and businesses in flood-prone areas or near coastlines vulnerable to rising sea levels, there are fears that such natural disasters could have a deep impact on countries’ economic growth.

“Asia Pacific, as a region, is arguably the most successful in economic development, economic growth and poverty reduction; and is also facing the greatest threat from natural disasters," notes Vinod Thomas, a director-general at the Asian Development Bank. "Going forward what we are looking at is not an interruption to economic growth and development but a systematic threat that could potentially derail economic development in the region.”

The report says governments need to invest more to reduce disaster risks and holds Bangladesh up as a model. It says the country’s $10 billion spent in the past three decades has built improved early warning systems and better community preparations that have dramatically reduced the loss of life from severe storms.