South Asia’s geography makes it particularly susceptible to natural disasters. According to the recently published 2011 World Risk Report, countries like Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan exhibit a high level of vulnerability as demonstrated by their lack of coping capacities and adaptive capacities. In evaluating 173 countries for purposes of creating this year’s World Risk Index, the report gave the following countries its global risk index ranking: Bangladesh (6), Pakistan (66), India (71) and Nepal (99). There is a high level of variation within South Asia itself, but these rankings should not be misinterpreted to undermine the risk faced by these countries—particularly the poor—in the face of natural disaster.
As per the Index, Bangladesh has been declared the second most disaster-risk country in Asia—only after the Philippines—and sixth in the world after countries like Vanuatu, Tonga and Guatemala. Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons due to its exposure to seismic activity. The growing effects of climate change are also projected to exacerbate the country’s exposure. In response, the Government of Bangladesh has taken steps this year to set up a national program for disaster risk reduction. In a June 2011 interview, Mohammad Abdul Qayyum, National Director of the Comprehensive Disaster Management Program, noted that state structural measures (i.e., building embankment, sea walls and anti-cyclone shelters), as well as non-structural measures (i.e., increasing individual and community preparedness, introducing community-managed early warning systems) are being put into place to reduce the potential impacts from natural disaster.
But how prepared are Bangladesh’s urban centers? Dhaka is at great risk because of “…its inability to absorb the shock of any severe natural disaster.” The Bangladesh capital is an enormous, “unplanned” city that is ill-equipped to handle its growing population. In an op-ed published in The Financial Express earlier this month, Shafiqul Alam writes about climate change and vulnerability, “…mitigation and adaptation are options available, though mitigation and adaptation are the opposite sides of a coin.” Adaptation is motivated by self-interest – meaning that people, communities and states need to pursue their own disaster planning and management strategies. Mitigation, however, is motivated by general improvement: “…installing more efficient energy and modes of transportation, planting trees and the like will benefit not only the individual doing it but also the world at large.” As the government further shapes and implements its national program, it will become more clear what roles adaptation and mitigation will play in disaster risk reduction.
How can South Asian countries fortify themselves in the face of inevitable natural disasters? Where Bangladesh seems to be taking steps to improve its resilience, countries like Nepal and Pakistan are struggling for solutions. Nepal may have ranked towards the middle of the World Risk Index at 99th out of the 173, but the country with a population of around 30 million people faces similar natural threats as Bangladesh. According to data compiled by the Disaster Preparedness Network Nepal (DPNN), 22,278 people in Nepal have lost their lives due to natural disasters since 1982. DPNN data also illustrates the natural disasters behind these fatalities – they are attributed to avalanches, earthquakes, floods and landslides, fire, pandemics, stampedes, and windstorm, hailstones and lightning. Although the demographics behind this figure has not been published, it would be a fair assumption based on the experience of other South Asian countries that those people with less stable homes – the urban poor – make up a significant fraction of the fatalities. DPNN Chairman Dr. Meen Bahadur Poudel notes that these fatalities are due to increase in the future.
On September 18 of this year, a 6.9-magnitude earthquake in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley displaced 12,301 people and killed six people. There are growing fears that the country’s capital, Kathmandu, home to two million inhabitants, is due to experience a devastating earthquake – like the 8.0-magnitude quake that occurred 77 years ago and killed more than 225,000 people – and is not prepared. A September Khajeel Times article states: “The Kathmandu Valley has experienced rapid, uncontrolled urbanization in the past few years and the lack of infrastructure and deep-rooted poverty leave it desperately underprepared for an earthquake.” British geologist Dave Petley elaborates on one of the key problems in Kathmandu: “The building stock is not seismically strengthened, suggesting that in a big earthquake there will be large numbers of building collapses.” Geology experts say that Kathmandu is overdue for an earthquake that would kill tens of thousands of people and leave survivors isolated from international aid.
There are basic steps that can be taken in Kathmandu – and wider Nepal – to boost its resilience, such as enforcing building codes and executing emergency drills for the public. The National Society for Earthquake Technology, established in Nepal in 1988, has launched a program to make school buildings more earthquake-resistant. As a nationwide initiative, Nepal’s Home Ministry has identified 83 areas in the Kathmandu Valley where infrastructure and food storage facilities will be built in the event of emergency. But more must be done to both prepare citizens for natural disasters and to update infrastructure to meet the region’s seismic challenges.
The story of Pakistan is a near cautionary tale for the rest of South Asia of what happens when institutions and systems are not in place to alleviate emergencies. Pakistan’s plight since 2010 is well-documented. This year, at least 5.5 million people have been affected by flooding in the country: in late August, floods killed over 300 people and have damaged 1.2 million houses. Last year’s floods affected 21 million people – both in rural and urban areas – and it is estimated that 800,000 families are still homeless in the wake of 2010’s floods. Oxfam has accused the Government of Pakistan of not investing in prevention that has cost the economy near US$10bn. The government, though, is cash-strapped and the challenges faced are bigger than what it can handle. The UN has started a food drive to feed 500,000 displaced flood victims, but this effort is not enough; it does not improve Pakistan’s future prospects of grappling with natural disasters. International donors have had a “cold response” to Pakistan’s appeals for help. The Express Tribune reports: “The cold response comes not from donor fatigue, but from questions being raised over the government’s ability to raise a portion of the funds.”
Within South Asia, countries are confronted by varied challenges, but the common denominators are inadequate infrastructure and, for whatever reasons, government inaction. Urbanization will continue to push cities to their limits, and the environmental risks of these cities will grow. To limit risk exposure, these countries will need to find solutions that will address both preparedness and emergency response when needed. Countries like Bolivia – one of the poorest in Latin America – also face significant threats from natural disasters, but lack the institutional capacities to handle events like its devastating rains in 2001, which left close to 14,000 families homeless. The Government of Bolivia has focused its national disaster program on preparedness and risk management – two aspects which it does have control over. South Asian countries need to do the same.