Addressing Water-Related Disaster Risk in Asia and the Pacific

Delivered at the 5th Meeting of High-level Experts and Leaders Panel (HELP) on Water and Disasters in Seoul, Republic of Korea

Your Excellency, Dr. Han, Seung-soo, Chair of HELP, and
UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Disaster Risk Reduction & Water

Your Excellency, Mr. Yoo, Il-ho, Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport,
Republic of Korea

Your Excellency, Mr. Amadou Mansour Faye, President of AMCOW and
Minister of Hydraulics and Sanitation of Senegal

Your Excellency, Ms. Melanie Schultz van Haegen, Vice-Chair of Help and
Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment of the Netherlands

Excellencies,
Distinguished members,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Introduction

Opening the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan last month, the United Nations Secretary General said: “We have to do more than fund development projects – we have to make sure that they strengthen vulnerable communities. Disaster risk reduction is at the nexus of development aid, relief and environment. It is critical to prepare high-risk societies so that a natural disaster does not turn into an all-out catastrophe. […] We will succeed when we empower people”.

It is my honor therefore to join you today for this very timely 5th Meeting of the High-level Experts and Leaders Panel on Water and Disasters (HELP), and Dr. Han, allow me to start by thanking you for your leadership of the Panel.

I will use my remarks today to focus briefly on four issues: Water-related Disasters in Asia and the Pacific; the diversity of water-related disaster risk; climate change and disaster risk; and how the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) is acting to support disaster risk reduction and resilience in our member States.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Water-related Disasters in Asia and the Pacific

The Asia-Pacific region faces immense challenges in water-related disaster risk, with more than 4000 events reported since 1970. More than 1 million lives were lost from hydro-meteorological disasters in the region alone, accounting for 53 per cent of the global total. Of the people affected by natural disasters, both globally and in the Asia-Pacific region, 97 per cent were affected by hydro-meteorological disasters. These disasters have cost the region more than US$ 678 billion in economic losses.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Diversity of Water-Related Disaster Risk

The severity and scale of natural disasters are often magnified by their knock-on effects, by causing turmoil to economies, communities and ecosystems. In turn, they present a major challenge to the implementation of sustainable development and the priorities of the post-2015 development agenda.

In the Asia-Pacific region, water-related disaster risks are further compounded by the great diversity of challenges facing our member States, including severe storms, flooding, landslides and droughts — often occurring concurrently. In the month of January 2014 alone, for example, there were tropical cyclones impacting the Philippines and Tonga, severe flooding and landslides in Indonesia and drought in Australia.

Furthermore, multiple disasters can sometimes affect a country at the same time. In countries such as Cambodia, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, for example, periods of severe drought can occur during a cropping season, while in an area close by, communities are affected by floods due to local climate conditions.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Climate Change & Disaster Risk

In addition to the damage and devastation wrought in the normal course of natural disasters, the rapidly changing global climate is adding to the impacts of extreme weather events. This is a clear illustration of the nexus between development, disasters and the environment, to which the Secretary-General referred.

According to the fifth Assessment Report from the IPCC, heavy rainfall may likely intensify in the future, and become more frequent in specific regions of Asia and the Pacific, with intensified monsoons possibly raising the risk of flooding for many countries. It is also considered likely that drought will become more prevalent, placing greater pressure on scarce water and food supplies. With glaciers, snow cover and permafrost shrinking at alarming rates, water resources will become an even greater concern.

For this reason, there is a clear need to ensure that climate scenarios and adaptation responses are deeply integrated into disaster risk management and broader sustainable development strategies. Debates about action on climate change can no longer be allowed to occur in isolation, and deliberations such as those in Sendai, about disaster risk and resilience, must be aligned with urgent global and regional action to address climate change.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Regional Efforts to Support DRR & Resilience

In order to better support disaster risk reduction and build resilience in our member States, ESCAP is positioning itself through three key roles:

  1. First, as most water-related disasters have transboundary origins, regional cooperation is crucial in disaster risk management. ESCAP has led several initiatives in the past, starting from the establishment of the Mekong River Commission (MRC); ESCAP/WMO Typhoon Committee; WMO/ESCAP Panel on Tropical Cyclones; and the ESCAP Regional Drought Mechanism, which have contributed substantially to addressing water-related disaster risk in the region. Together, these initiatives have multiplied the benefits of collective action and better coordination. The foundations of regional cooperation have been built on common river-basin, ocean-basin and agricultural ecosystems;
  2. Second, the transformational shift towards sustainable development must be based on sound science, technology and innovation (STI). STI applications are used in managing disaster risks, but can be expanded further by addressing the key gaps in utilizing these technologies. For example, ESCAP’s long-standing Regional Space Applications Programme for Sustainable Development (RESAP) is a key platform allowing countries and experts to share data, information and good practices in utilizing space technology and GIS applications for water-related disaster risk management. ESCAP utilizes platforms such as RESAP to tailor programmes for high risk, low capacity countries for greater accessibility to STI; and
  3. Third, ESCAP acts as a catalyst in promoting regional multi-hazard early warning systems. These are an essential component of effective strategies to reduce disaster risk, as disasters often threaten multiple countries, and there are significant economies of scale involved in developing collective early warning systems. Established in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, ESCAP‘s Multi-Donor Trust Fund for Tsunami, Disaster and Climate Preparedness plays a key role in strengthening end-to-end early warning systems for coastal multi-hazards. It has supported 26 projects, directly benefitting 19 Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian countries. For example, the Trust Fund contributed substantially to the establishment of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System in 2011, which is projected to save, on average, 1,000 lives per year over the next 100 years.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Conclusion

In conclusion, ESCAP is committed to catalyze the transformation of Asia-Pacific into a more resilient region, founded on shared prosperity, social equity and sustainability.

We stand ready in these efforts, to support and promote the important work of HELP in addressing the challenges of water and disasters.

I thank you.