Disaster Relief and Poverty Reduction in Asia

Weather wise, the last two months for Asia have been tough.

Asia has suffered from multiple typhoons stemming from the Pacific Ocean, Cyclone Phailin from the Indian Ocean, massive earthquakes in the Philippines and Pakistan , flooding in Southeast Asia and China, and unprecedented amounts of pollution have shut down China’s northeast city of Harbin and killed 10 people Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator.

As the ramifications, measured in both human and actual capital from this mix of natural and man-made disasters pans out, Asian nations are collectively coming to the realization that disaster relief and prevention are valuable investments that limit, eliminate, or avert the exacerbation, of existing challenges that these countries, many of which are considered developing, are facing.

Recently, two major reports were published regarding the economic costs of climate change and the ways in which natural disasters hinder poverty reduction in Asia.

In one of the reports, titled “Economics of Climate Change in East Asia” released by The Asia Development Bank, is the prediction that the frequency and strength of floods, tropical storms, heat waves, and droughts will continue to increase drastically in the coming decades. Over the period of 2010-2050 using a medium-range projection, adaptation to climate change in East Asia will cost $22.9 billion – annually. The Asia Development Bank forecasts that many countries will need to make annual investments to “climate-proof” their infrastructure, including the Republic of Korea ($1.2 billion), Japan ($5.6 billion), the People’s Republic of China ($11 billion), and Mongolia ($150 million). However, if countries like the Republic of Korea and Japan can reduce their C02 emissions by 22%-31%, then they would offset all costs in reducing emissions – through costs associated with lower energy bills, improved air quality, and lower resource requirements. Countries like the People’s Republic of China or Mongolia do not have such promising outlooks in offsetting costs, but have greater potential for overall C02 reduction.

But while the report acknowledged the importance of managing the risks of natural disasters, it did not factor in their financial or human impact.

The second report, released around the same time, titled “The Geography of Poverty, Disasters and Climate Extremes in 2030” by the Overseas Development Institute and the U.K. Meteorological Office and Risk Management Solutions looks into how climate change and its resulting natural disasters impact the reduction of poverty. The report advocates, “disaster risk management should be a key component of poverty reduction efforts, focusing on protecting livelihoods as well as saving lives.” International efforts to eradicate poverty, lead by organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations, are thoroughly thwarted by the continued exposure of large swaths of the world’s population to natural disasters. If left unaddressed, by 2030 there could 325 million “extremely” poor people living in 49 countries that are also exposed to a range of natural hazards. The most devastating hazard being drought.

Even though the report covers all countries with high levels of poverty, countries like Bangladesh and Nepal stood out as having the most risk of disaster-induced poverty, Afghanistan and Burma with an intermediate risk, and lastly, India serving as a “special case.”

While the report predicts India will have the highest numbers of people likely to be living in poverty, India’s centralized capacity to mitigate the impact of natural disasters makes it unique amongst the other case studies in the report.

For evidence of India’s capacity to mitigate the risks to its population brought on by natural disasters, one only need turn to recent events. Amongst all recent disasters in Asia, Cyclone Phailin was arguably the worst, with 200-kilometer winds, torrential rain, knocking out power, uprooting trees, and driving nearly a million people to evacuate. While it was not the largest cyclone in Indian history, which happened in 1999, killing 15,000 people, it was strong enough to be compared to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In a region that has seen 77 major cyclones in 124 years, India’s preparation in moving 900,000 people out of the region resulted in less than 30 deaths.  By comparison, Katrina claimed roughly 1,200 lives.

India’s ability to adequately prepare for Phailin substantiates the Overseas Development Institute and U.K. Meteorological Office and Risk Management Solutions’ report. However, the true economic impact the cyclone had in terms of the costs of repairing infrastructure and contending with the spread of diseases remains to be seen. Based on the reports coming out of India so far, we can see why it is important to also heed the Asian Development Bank’s advice by investing in infrastructural projects that further prepare for natural disasters throughout Asia.