The past decade has seen many major natural disasters across South Asia: the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, 2007 cyclone in Bangladesh, and recent flooding in India. Among many other such events, they demonstrate how subject South Asia and its people are to natural disasters. Coupled with this geographic vulnerability are rising population density and low levels of development, which is potentially devastating for human life and property.
What are the disaster risks and challenges for South Asia?
Relative to economic size, flood losses are about 15 times greater than in industrialized countries. South Asia is at particular risk of damage from disasters, lying above the most active continental plates, its coastline in the path of cyclones, and its rivers subject to flooding from the yearly monsoon. Since 1971, there have been over 1,000 disasters in the region, at increasing frequency per year on average. It already has 65 cities with populations over a million people. The density of people and economic activity in major cities across the region such as Chittagong, Delhi, Dhaka, Karachi, Kathmandu, Lahore, and Mumbai will continue to increase, and the exposure of economic assets to natural hazards will be considerably higher.
Financially, disasters move budgets away from development planning and towards reconstruction in post-disaster environments. In India, for instance, several state governments spend significantly more on relief and recovering from damages than on their rural development programs.
How do you assess risk?
Disasters results from the combination of three elements:
1. Natural hazards (earthquakes, cyclones, tsunamis, excess rainfall)
2. Exposure (people and property, or what is exposed to hazards)
3. Vulnerability (how the hazard impacts them)
Hazards are relatively fixed as seismic activity, rainfall trends, and cyclones are moderately constant. However, meteorological trends are changing due to climate change. Increases in global temperatures may have an impact on storm surge, rainfall amounts, and heat wave duration.
Exposure has been increasing dramatically in South Asia due to economic growth creating more assets being stored, rising populations, and increased urbanization. Each of these factors are exposing more people and assets to hazards, especially in South Asia. However, if assets are one day highly resilient, losses may not increase.
The current vulnerability of humans and assets are high in South Asia due to unplanned human settlements, unsafe building practices, and high population densities especially in growing urban areas. Consequently, disasters of every type and magnitude happen at regular intervals, consuming lives, property, and livelihoods.