Opinion: Disaster-prone Asia must not cut corners on critical infrastructure

Damage to critical infrastructure is escalating the global cost of extreme weather, earthquakes and tsunamis

By Mami Mizutori

Much of the success in reducing mortality from disasters across Asia and the Pacific, particularly in the case of storms and floods, is due to improvements in early warning systems, weather forecasts and timely evacuations. This is a significant achievement.

However, while one can evacuate people, it is impossible at short notice to relocate critical infrastructure such as schools, health facilities, roads, airports, railways, nuclear power plants or manufacturing facilities which end up in harm’s way.

Damage to critical infrastructure is escalating the global cost of extreme weather events, earthquakes and tsunamis, but countries in Asia and the Pacific are suffering inordinately as the level and intensity of disaster events across the region continually raises the bar for resilience.

A new study demonstrates, for example, that more than 75 percent of the 4,862 fatal landslides recorded worldwide between 2004 and 2016 occurred in Asia. Climate change and its impact on regional rainfall patterns is likely a factor in this, along with rapid population growth and unplanned urbanization.

Robust economic growth and development gains across the region are threatened by the fact that Asia typically accounts for some 80 percent of major reported disaster events annually. The Asian Development Bank estimates that the region is hemorrhaging direct physical losses of $126 million every day as a consequence of extreme weather events and geophysical hazards.

Concern about economic losses from the failure of critical infrastructure is what should be driving a more risk-informed approach to managing the built environment. After all, a natural hazard only turns into an extensive disaster event when it impacts on a human settlement where insufficient measures have been taken to avoid or mitigate such an outcome.

We need to remember that disasters are a combination of natural hazards, exposure and vulnerability.

The extent to which corners are often cut by the construction industry and those with planning oversight were revealed by the floods that hit South Asia last year, which saw buildings collapse, road and transport systems flooded, and schools and hospitals damaged and destroyed.

There can be many interlocking factors that explain such outcomes. But at the heart of the matter is poor governance, failing to ensure best practice is followed in land use and building regulations enforced.

The most expensive piece of infrastructure is the one that must be replaced because it did not meet the standard required to match the risk profile of the area where it was located.

No surprises

This plain truth was revealed in spectacular fashion when major floods hit Thailand in November 2011. It is probable that few of the companies that built factories on the floodplains of the Chao Phraya River were fully aware of the risks they faced.

As the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction commented in its 2015 Global Assessment Report, “Flood risk in the basin had never been modelled, and the scale of the disaster took global businesses, the government and the insurance industry by surprise. Rippling through global supply chains, the disaster affected production around the world and resulted in massive losses.”

The adoption of a global plan to reduce disaster losses - the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction - by all U.N. member states was a key moment in the fight to raise awareness of the simple fact that such losses can be avoided if disaster risk is factored into key decision-making on new construction and the expansion and maintenance of existing facilities.

It is human nature to discount risk to a certain degree. People’s choice of where to live and work is often constrained by social and economic factors, including a lack of access to safe housing and the need to be close to employment opportunities.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of national and local governments to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely on critical infrastructure which will continue to function and serve those in need once the storm has subsided, the flood receded or the after-shocks have ceased.

Furthermore, in the spirit of the Sendai Framework which calls for an all-of society approach, the private sector also needs to sign up to the cause.

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