p>LONDON (AlertNet) - Flooding across Southeast Asia, which has affected some 8 million people, highlights the need for businesses to step up efforts to reduce disaster risk for their assets and their workers, a senior U.N. official said on Thursday.
In Thailand, at least six big industrial estates have been shut down, most in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, where residents forced from their homes have pitched tents close to roads. The Nava Nakorn estate north of Bangkok, Thailand's oldest with 270 plants and about 270,000 workers, has also been completely flooded.
Jerry Velasquez, who heads up the Asia-Pacific office of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) based in Bangkok, told AlertNet that, given the advance warning of the floods, companies should have been in a better position to protect their premises.
"This flooding has affected booming economies and hit industrial regions where there is also foreign investment – by (Japanese) companies like Honda and Toyota," he said.
"These floods map exactly onto models for a one-in-a-hundred-years event, and things could get worse in the future. If we know where the floods are going to happen and how high they are going to be, then the private sector should have been prepared."
Velasquez said the business world has not yet learned the lessons from the huge earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of northeastern Japan in March.
The floods in Thailand have forced Japan's Sony Corp to halt production at some plants there, pushing it to delay the launch of several cameras due in November, for example, and the output of Japanese car makers has fallen by about 6,000 units a day.
On Thursday, Thailand's central bank put the damage to industry at more than 100 billion baht ($3.3 billion). And there are fears those economic losses will translate into deprivation for individuals.
Velasquez said major firms employ millions of people and have a responsibility for their livelihoods, especially during crises which tend to hit the poorest worst.
NEED FOR BETTER PLANNING
According to an article by the Thai representative of the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation, more than 400,000 people could be out of work for two to three months in Thailand before factories resume operations, and thousands more could be affected as suspended production disrupts wider supply chains. If household incomes fall, that could leave many families struggling to cope, with an average of five members dependent on each factory worker.
Velasquez said international disaster reduction efforts have not focused enough on the wider implications of rapid economic development in regions like Southeast Asia.
"We are doing very well when it comes to things like early warning systems – the number of people dying globally in disasters has decreased, and we have been able to save people despite an increase in disasters," he said. "But economic losses are going up because exposure is growing faster than we have been able to protect (economic activity)."
Investment can create fresh risks for people, he added, because workers move to live near new factories.
"If they are on flood plains, or near the coast, then we are setting ourselves up for disaster," he said, adding that the population of Thais living on flood plains has increased due to private-sector development there.
The recent flooding - which could worsen due to another period of high tides and heavy rain forecast for the end of October - has underlined the need for dialogue between the government and private sector about disaster-resilient planning, Velasquez argued.
Incorporating disaster prevention measures during the construction of a bridge, a road or a building is much cheaper than trying to repair or flood-proof infrastructure after it is built, for example.
"We can't stop development, but we need to ensure it is done properly," he said.
TOO MANY CHILD DEATHS
The UNISDR is also concerned about the high numbers of children reported to have died in the floods, and will seek to work with aid agencies focused on children to improve their safety in future emergencies, Velasquez said.
The United Nations estimates a total of 745 people have been killed and 8 million affected by the flooding that has hit Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines since July. At the country level, children account for around half of Cambodia's 247 deaths, 38 of 43 in Vietnam and 52 of 317 in Thailand, according to Velasquez.
"We could understand if this were a sudden disaster, but we have seen it coming... It is like a slow-moving tsunami," he said. "We hope that, once the emergency phase is over, more children are going to be taught to swim."
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)