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Is Asia Pacific ready for complex urban disasters?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 27 Jun 2011 15:07 GMT
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By Thin Lei Win

What if your city was hit by a tsunami triggered by an earthquake – already crises that would bring most cities to their knees – which in turn led to fires, chemical spills and nuclear power accidents? Is your city prepared for multiple disasters?

This question was posed to a panel of experts from Japan, Bangladesh and China and audiences from around the region on Friday at a session entitled “Complex Urban Disasters – Are We Ready?” at the 5th Asia Pacific Urban Forum.

The short answer was “No, not yet.”

While experts and governments are becoming acutely aware of the risks and impacts of both physical and material losses from such events, responses to tackle the threats have so far been ad-hoc and short-term.

“I do not think at the moment we are ready,” said Samuela A. Saumatua, Fiji’s minister for local government, urban development, housing and environment.

He said complacency plagued governments.

“It’s a very common human response to disaster. Disaster is there, we prepare, when it’s gone, our preparedness goes out with it also,” he said. “It’s like it will happen to everyone else but not you, like the tsunami will happen in Japan but not Fiji.”

Cheng Xiaotao from China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research said countries need to “break away from the whacky cycle,” whereby being free from floods for several years leads to complacency and ignorance and to cuts in expenditure on flood prevention.

He said it is a vicious circle: A major flood occurs, causes death and destruction, pushing governments to then put more effort on risk-reduction, which in turn leads to fewer floods, but then complacency sets in again.  

JAPAN HARBINGER FOR URBAN DISASTERS?

The disaster in Japan this March, when a 9-magnitude tremor led to a tsunami followed by a nuclear disaster, brought the issue of complex disasters in urban areas to the fore, and governments in Asia Pacific – a rapidly urbanising region – are worried.

Many countries saw Japan as a nation with has the best resources and preparation in the region, if not the world, against such cataclysmic events. Yet it became clear the scale of the disaster overwhelmed even Japan, with its constant drills and well laid-out plans.

Yokohama had prepared for a metre-tall tsunami in its current disaster prevention plan, but the wave was 1.6 metres high, said Masaaki Taniguchi from the policy bureau of Japan’s second largest city.

The city is some 400 km from the epicentre, yet it suffered two deaths, 75 injuries, damage to over 300 buildings and transport blackouts.

And despite its distance from Fukushima, where workers are struggling to control radiation leaks from three nuclear reactors that were damaged by the quake, concern over radiation is widespread, especially among parents.

The city is now developing ‘high-safety urban infrastructure’ including underground water tanks in its city centre that are capable of supplying water to 500,000 people for three days in the event of a disaster.

MISPLACED PRIORITIES

Over the last two decades Asia’s urban population increased exponentially and it now hosts 50 percent of the global urban population, according to the United Nations’ recent State of Asian Cities 2010/2011 report.

Rapid urban population growth, migration and industry concentration is leading to the growth of slums and informal settlements, environmental degradation, and poverty and inequality, and experts say urban vulnerability to disasters is increasing.

Climate change and associated extreme weather events are expected to worsen this vulnerability, and the balancing of economic growth with environmental protection is a big issue for countries in the region.

Brigadier General Abul Hossain, chief engineer at Dhaka City Corporation, said Bangladesh’s capital suffers from regular fires, building collapses and annual flooding. It isn’t safe from earthquakes either.

Dhaka has the highest population growth in the world, according to World Bank, and grew in an “unplanned” way, Hossain said. People have to live with risks arising from buildings’ dense populations, narrow lanes and poor quality of construction and building-code enforcement.

In China, urbanisation rates rose from 20 to 40 percent within 22 years. It took 120 years for the United Kingdom, 100 years for France and 40 years for the United States to match this degree of urbanisation, Cheng said.

During such a rapid urbanisation process, integral infrastructure such as drainage systems underground – the cause of much of urban flooding – were always ignored in favour of “on the ground” priorities, he added.

RETHINKING EARLY WARNING?

Rajib Shaw, a professor of global environmental studies at Japan’s University of Kyoto, said it may not be enough for governments just to give early warning. The tsunami warning was issued three minutes after the quake hit, but studies found it took 23 minutes on average for people to understand the early warning and only six percent of people took shelter in high ground, he added.

“It gives us a major challenge,” he said. “When the local government gives the early warning, that’s not where our responsibility ends.”

“It’s a very complicated issue as to how to give the warning – what are the key messages, can you say how many metres of tsunami are coming in how many minutes?”

Establishing what types of messages could help people to adopt safe behaviours is a topic in need of a re-think, he said.

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)

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