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Analysis

Southeast Asia lacks a culture of preparedness in the face of natural disasters

Asia-Pacific is one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world.


Written by

Updated: February 8, 2019

Each year, natural disasters cost the region billions of dollars, and exact a massive toll on local populations.  

In 2016 alone, Asia-Pacific lost $126 million per day due to natural disasters. According to a report by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction that equals a loss of about 0.4 percent of the region’s GDP. Some 11.2 million people were displaced by disasters that year.

You might think the region that’s home to the Ring of Fire, the most seismically active area in the world, where 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes are found, would be prepared to face natural disasters. You would be wrong.

Many countries in the region are inadequately prepared at the countrywide, local, and personal levels for dangerous natural threats, some of which—typhoons for instance—will become more frequent and severe as the world’s climate changes.

A recently released study from Harvard Humanitarian Initiative DisasterNet Philippines study revealed that the majority of Filipino households feel they aren’t prepared for disasters. Only 36 percent of respondents said they are prepared should disaster strike and 74 percent said they are unable to invest in disaster preparations.

The Philippines it at risk from major typhoons—typhoon Ompong, referred to as Mangkhut internationally, affected nearly 600,000 people—and from massive earthquakes. One fault line in particular may cause catastrophic damage within many of our lifetimes.

The West Valley Fault, a 100km fault line that runs through six cities in Metro Manila, has a recurrence interval of 400-500 years. The last major earthquake caused by a slip in this faut was in 1658, 361 years ago.

Estimates of what could happen should an earthquake be triggered along the fault are horrifying. The Metropolitan Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study expects that a 7.2 magnitude earthquake from the West Valley Fault could kill as many as 34,000 people, injure 114,000, destroy 170,000 residential houses and seven bridges.

Yet, according to the Harvard study nearly half of households surveyed—47 percent—said they had done nothing in the last five years to prepare for a disaster.

The Philippines isn’t the only disaster-prone country in the region that lacks a culture of preparedness.

Indonesia is in the process of recovering from one of the country’s deadliest years in a little over a decade. At least 4,231 people died or are still missing across the archipelago in 2018. The country suffered 2,426 natural disasters.

Yet, according to the chairwoman of the country’s Meteorology Climatology and Geophysics Agency, Dwikorita Karnawati, the nation lacks programs to raise disaster awareness. The public works ministry maintains codes for earthquake-proof structures, but implementation is spotty.

One study by the Indonesian Institute of Science found that investment in local disaster mitigation efforts is low, with local governments spending less than 0.1 percent of regional budgets on related projects.

The death toll from the recent Sunda Strait tsunami which was triggered by an underwater landslide related to Anak Krakatau’s eruption was impossible to detect in time to give advance warning because “no tsunami detection buoys are in operation in [Indonesia] right now, which are necessary to detect such waves early. Most of them are broken because of vandalism,” according to Tsunami expert Abdul Muhari who was quoted in The Jakarta Post.

Indonesia does not yet even mandate that schools in tsunami-affected areas develop or rehearse their own evacuation plans.

Many of these disasters, those affected by a changing climate, are only going to get worse. That same UN report on disaster reduction estimated that losses to Asia-Pacific’s GDP related to natural disasters is going to double by 2030. If countries in the region fail to invest in building up cultures of preparedness the consequences will only grow more dire.



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Quinn Libson
About the Author: Quinn Libson is an Associate Editor at Asia News Network

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