Published on Sustainable Cities

Hazards, vulnerabilities, and exposures… Oh my

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Hurricane Sandy satellite image over CaribbeanAs the East Coast USA deals with Hurricane Sandy, aka “Frankenstorm”, and Hawaii breathes a sigh of relief at a downgraded tsunami, we are again reminded of the immediate and long-term socio-economic destruction of natural disasters. Hurricane Sandy has resulted in school and public transportation closures, flight cancellations, area evacuations, and even modified Presidential campaign schedules. New York Mayor Bloomberg urged residents to cooperate, “if you don't evacuate, you are not only endangering your life, you are also endangering the lives of the first responders who are going in to rescue you. This is a serious and dangerous storm.”1

Ground zero for natural disasters lies not in the US, however, but in the Asia Pacific Region. Last week, UN ESCAP/UNISDR released the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2012, ‘Reducing Vulnerability and Exposure to Disasters’. In the year 2011 alone, Asia Pacific represented:

  • 80% (US$ 294/366.1 billion) of the annual global disaster losses 
  • Half of the most costly natural disaster events

These statistics were not surprising, especially when you consider the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year. Yet, the longer-term trends in the region are even more troubling: 

  • 80% of total disaster losses from the decade 2000-2009
  • 75% of disaster fatalities between 1970 and 2011

The rate and mode of economic and population growth has increased its exposure and vulnerability to natural disasters. More and more people are living in cites, located along the coast, low lying areas, or other areas prone to natural disasters. The hard infrastructure is often aging and unable to cope with continually increasing demands. The soft infrastructure may not go as far or extensively. Many people have limited choices, knowledge, and means to protect themselves or move to safer places.

But increasing means does not necessarily refer to increased protection either. Sadly, the region’s impressive growth since 1970 was outpaced by the natural disaster costs. “The region has yet to commit adequate resources to reduce disaster risks and protect the development gains made possible by sustained growth.”2 The increasing assets of growing economies and their rising middle classes mean greater exposure to natural disasters if protections are not put in place. Economic development can help create greater resilience against natural disasters if significant investments are made in disaster risk management, early warning and preparation systems, education and training and social safety nets.

This tension between investing in long-term infrastructure improvements and capturing immediate economic gains is neither new nor unique. But such choices are becoming more and more dangerous as natural disasters become more severe and frequent. While the Asia-Pacific region has made some strides in building their resilience, more needs to done, especially in supporting the most vulnerable – women, children, disabled, elderly, and those in poverty. Strategies such as land-use planning, ecosystems management, post-disaster recovery and supply chain management can be applied to greater degrees, scale and coordination to reduce exposure to future disasters. These require long-term capital investments, include input and participation from multiple, diverse stakeholders and greater government leadership and responsibility. It is easier to focus on the particular disaster of the moment, but it will be much more effective in the long term to continue to build resilience, learn from our experiences, and reduce exposure to future natural disasters.

Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction, said in reference to Asia-Pacific for the UN report, "Exposure to disaster risk is growing faster than our ability to build resilience…Reducing risk successfully is about saving lives, jobs, homes and valuable infrastructure such as schools, health facilities and roads."3 In the face of Hurricane Sandy, however, her words seem just as applicable to the US’s future resilience efforts as to the Asia-Pacific region.




Photo:  Hurricane Sandy near peak intensity on October 25, 2012.
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, via



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