Investing Today to Increase Resilience to Tomorrow’s Hazards

October 1, 2013

  • Over the last few decades, increases in both the frequency and intensity of natural disasters have been recorded around the world.
  • South Asia is the most exposed region to disasters, which has caused more than 825,000 deaths and direct damages of over $80 billion.
  • Enhancing understanding of disaster risks and building resilience will be critical for South Asia to harness growth towards steady and sustained development.

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.

" In South Asia we are picking an approach which is looking to really marry both climate change and disaster risk management, in a way that is a bit more integrated than what happens in a lot of parts of the world. "

Marc Forni

Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist, World Bank

What is being done?

The purpose of mitigating disaster and climate risks is to decrease the vulnerability   of assets exposed to natural disasters.

1.      The first need is to identify disaster risks, including understanding hazards, what is being exposed to the hazards, and the vulnerability of assets to the hazards.

2.      Once risks are understood, activities should mitigate these risks through retrofitting buildings, constructing protective infrastructure, as well as enforcing building costs and preventing construction in highly vulnerable environments.

3.      Lastly, strategies will be developed to ensure the availability of funds to respond to disasters.

Disaster management agencies have been established across the region since 2004, but they currently lack clout to influence planning and development agendas. Policies and legislation for managing natural disasters are often insufficiently enforced.

There are positive examples of success however. For example, in high-risk earthquake zones in Nepal, school awareness initiatives teach children from a young age about the hazards their communities are exposed to and the appropriate responses in case of a disaster. Measures taken over the years seem to be working in saving lives. The 2007 Cyclone Sidr was the most intense disaster event in Bangladesh’s history and caused 4,234 deaths, a 100-fold reduction compared to a 1970 cyclone, that killed 500,000 people.

As urban populations rise, it is impossible to move people away from their homes and livelihoods in megacities such as Mumbai, Karachi, Delhi, Dhaka, and Kolkata, but it is possible to institute planning processes that prevent weak construction in high risk areas.

The most severe impacts of climate change are likely to be widespread and will call for coordinated regional responses. For example, Bangladesh shares 54 rivers with India. The Himalayan ecosystem supports some 1.5 billion people across South Asia who live directly in the floodplains of the many rivers it supports (e.g. Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna). At the regional level, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is promoting comprehensive DRM engagements.

The World Bank report, Disaster Risk Management in South Asia: A Regional Overview provides a look at the disaster risks the region faces, with specific country risk and hazard profiles. You can read a shorter Brief here.