Comment: Is the region safer 15 years after the Boxing Day tsunami?


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  • Sunday, 19 Jan 2020

Taal spewing ash as it erupted recently. — AP

TENS of thousands were evacuated last week when the Philippines’ second most-active volcano, Taal, erupted after more than 40 years of being dormant.

Residents and visitors to the area stood alarmed but in awe at the sight of a 10km to 15km column of steam and ash emanating from the city of Tagaytay’s famous caldera. As evening struck, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) raised an alert level four over the tourist city – about 64km south of Manila – sending people scrambling to leave the ridge that straddles Cavite and Batangas, causing a traffic gridlock.

It wasn’t long before the warnings of a tsunami were issued.

This eruption came just a few days after the eruption of Anak Krakatau volcano in Indonesia, prompting worries that the region is not ready for another large-scale disaster like the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

In 2018, we were given a glimpse of Anak Krakatau’s might: an eruption caused part of the volcano’s crater to collapse, triggering up to 5m-high tsunami waves that killed at least 430 people.

Just a few weeks ago we marked the 15-year anniversary of the 2004 Boxing Day disaster that devastated the region. More than a quarter of a million people died and another two million were displaced after a 9.1-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island triggered massive waves that impacted communities in 14 countries.

Indonesia, which bore the brunt of the tsunami, lost at least 170,000 people. Some of the affected nations also suffered catastrophic economic damage, with the Maldives, for example, losing close to 62% of its gross domestic product.

Since then, the Asia-Pacific region has made tremendous strides to reduce the likelihood of a similar calamity. The Indian Ocean Tsunami Early Warning and Mitigation System was established, bringing together 25 countries to detect tsunamis and issue timely alerts.

Early warning systems for weather-related disasters such as typhoons have also expanded, helping to account for an overall decrease in disaster-related deaths throughout the region.

These investments in disaster risk reduction are yielding clear results. In May 2019, Indian and Bangladeshi authorities succeeded in warning and safely evacuating over one million people ahead of Cyclone Fani. This early action led to a significant reduction in the number of casualties, although economic damage was still extensive, at over US$4.1bil (RM16.6bil).

While better preparedness and early warning are leading to a reduction in disaster-related mortality, economic losses from disasters across Asia-Pacific continue to grow.

Rapid, unplanned urbanisation is increasing the number of people and economic assets exposed to storms, typhoons and, in some cases, earthquakes. More than half of the region’s urban population now lives in low-lying coastal areas, increasing exposure to tsunamis. Additionally, the climate crisis is resulting in more intense and unpredictable weather-related hazards. These trends point to an urgent need for countries to broaden their actions to reduce risks associated with natural hazards.

First, authorities must do a better job of integrating disaster and climate risk into public and private sector investment decisions. This can be accomplished at national and local levels by incorporating historical records and future disaster and climate risk projections into development plans. Better data at the local level, for example, can improve risk assessments and inform the development of zoning laws to discourage construction, including of homes, businesses and hotels, in hazard-prone areas, notably flood plains and coastal areas.

There us also a need to ensure that all new infrastructure is made climate and disaster resilient. Over US$90tril (RM365tril) in new infrastructure investments are needed over the next 20 years to meet global economic and population growth.

Given that the World Bank estimates that investing in resilience upfront would increase infrastructure costs by a mere 3%, this wave of new investments into sectors such as energy, transportation and telecommunications present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the region to construct new infrastructure that is built to last and is protected against future climate impacts.

A third focus is the need for more engagement of communities in the development of strategies to reduce disaster-related risks. This became evident in the aftermath of the Palu-Donggala earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, the world’s deadliest disaster in 2018. Many affected communities were unaware that they were vulnerable to tsunamis and didn’t know what to do when the waves hit their villages.

Communities must become actively engaged in understanding their risks. Vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities must be actively involved in all stages of planning and preparedness so that their needs and capacities are fully taken into account when disasters strike.

From helping local authorities integrate risk into local development plans to teaching school children how to evacuate a tsunami, the United Nations is working with governments and stakeholders across the region to make these changes; the ultimate goal is to create safer and more resilient communities.

For this to happen, however, accelerated action and more political will are urgently needed. The 2020 Asia-Pacific Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which will be convened by the United Nations and hosted by the Australian government in Brisbane, will be an opportunity for leaders in the region to step up their commitments in all areas of risk reduction.

Firm political commitment, decisive community action and on-going investment in resilience will help guarantee that disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami never again occur. – The Jakarta Post/ANN

Loretta Hieber Girardet is chief of the Regional Office for Asia-Pacific, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

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