Strengthening regional cooperation to mitigate weather extremes

Floods and natural disasters across Asia-Pacific are worrisome threats to the region’s communities and economies. UN ESCAP executive secretary Shamshad Akhtar outlines ways the region can build resilience to extreme weather events.

mekong flooding thailand
Satellite imagery of flooding on the Mekong River floodplain along the border between Thailand and Laos. Flooding in southern Thailand in early 2017 has killed more than sixty people, affected over 330,000 households, and resulted in widespread asset losses. Image: NASA Johnson, CC BY-NC 2.0

This month’s floods in Thailand are a worrisome reminder of the increasing uncertainty of extreme weather events. Thailand’s flood season usually ends in November, but this year, influenced by a low depression and a strong northeast monsoon, widespread flooding in the south of the country has killed more than sixty people, affected over 330,000 households, and resulted in widespread asset losses.

Far from being an anomaly, however, the unpredictability of these extreme weather events may become the norm. Using a United Nations global methodology to estimate future disaster losses, we anticipate that average annual losses in Thailand due to floods will reach more than $2.5 billion by 2030, or 0.65 per cent of the country’s 2015 GDP, which is the equivalent of 2.6 per cent of gross fixed capital formation, and 2 per cent of gross savings.

The final impact on Thailand’s GDP for 2017 will depend on the duration of the floods. To date, the worst affected sector is rubber, which accounts for 1.5 per cent of GDP and 2.4 per cent of export revenues. The Rubber Authority of Thailand estimates that approximately 10 per cent of the country’s rubber production has been lost so far.

As Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of rubber, accounting for 38 per cent of world exports, a tighter global market supply may result in an increase in prices, which would somewhat mute revenue losses.  Nevertheless, based on climate outlook forecasts expecting the floods to recede by the end of January, a loss of 10 to 15 billion baht could still be expected.  

Concrete measures can and must be taken to minimize the impact of these disasters:

Build the resilience of the poor to weather extremes

The El Nino climate phenomena has resulted in both prolonged drought and floods in quick succession, with poor farmers in particular, bearing the brunt. The exposure of rubber farmers in Southern Thailand to severe drought in 2015 and 2016 and the current floods signals a new normal of complex disaster risk.

Poverty is a contributing factor in vulnerability to these disasters because it limits income earning options. The poor are much more likely to cope by reducing expenditures on education and health, which in turn further weakens their recovery and reinforces the transmission of intergenerational poverty in irreversible ways.

Monetary values attached to disaster losses seriously underestimate the complex linkages between poverty and disasters.    

Strengthen early warning systems

Last November, the 7th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Climate Outlook Forum predicted a strong northeast monsoon, and the Thai Meteorological Department forecasted medium and short range floods, which helped line ministries and provincial governments prepare for various flood scenarios.

Nevertheless, experience demonstrates that early warning messages tend to become less effective when they reach ‘the last mile’. This is not because of the lack of preparedness on the ground but rather because of the overall content of early warning messages and the way risk is communicated.

Often there is a lack of communication on not only the severity of impacts, but also on what specific areas, communities, and assets are most at-risk and likely to be most affected. In other cases, communities may not receive information in time, or they may receive unreliable risk information from various media sources, including social media, which can create confusion.

With the intensification of climate change effects, disasters are increasingly transboundary phenomena.  This demands transboundary solutions. 

To ensure prompt action at the community-level, risk information needs to be both tailored and standardized.

Calibrating these two requirements is central to maintaining the credibility of risk information. Finding the right balance can be challenging, so in recognition of this the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific’s (ESCAP) Multi-donor Trust Fund on Tsunami, Disaster and Climate Preparedness has prioritized financial support for initiatives that have built capacity in impact-based forecasting and last mile outreach.    

Leverage regional cooperation to mitigate risks and build resilience

With the intensification of climate change effects, disasters are increasingly transboundary phenomena.  This demands transboundary solutions. Actions taken on a regional cooperative basis can be particularly effective because the benefits unleashed are greater than the sum of individual country responses.

Consequently, ESCAP has created a climate risk communication platform, the Monsoon Forum, for improved understanding of climate outlooks and seasonal forecasts in high risk-low capacity countries such as Myanmar, Lao PDR and Cambodia.

Through South-South cooperation, ESCAP will tap into Thailand’s experience and knowledge in short and medium range forecasts and early warning communication systems, while continuing to support the integration of innovative tools and techniques for forecasting and monitoring tropical cyclones through the Panel on Tropical Cyclones and the Typhoon Committee, in partnership with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

In partnership with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk (UNISDR) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), ESCAP coordinates UN intervention at all stages of the disaster cycle, while in parallel, ASEAN and the UN have adopted a Joint Strategic Plan of Action on Disaster Management. These multiple initiatives have undoubtedly helped countries to be better prepared to face disasters.

ESCAP will further analyse all these issues in depth in the 2017 edition of the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report to be launched in October. The report will explore viable and effective methods of building the poor’s resilience to disasters, which is key to achieving the 2030 Agenda’s aspiration of leaving no-one behind in Asia and the Pacific.        

Shamshad Akhtar is a United Nations Under-Secretary-General and the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

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