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Too little, too late?

As the floods in Cambodia and Thailand recede, the state of regional cooperation is proving critical in addressing the difficulties faced by affected countries. Disaster preparedness is increasingly vital.

Heavy rains in Thailand and Cambodia since July have resulted in high socio-economic costs from flood damage and have claimed at least 500 lives.

For Thailand, with areas only two metres above sea level, the flood is said to be the country’s worst in the past 50 years, with a third of its provinces declared disaster zones.

But such incidents are not all

that new nor unexpected, for two main reasons.

First, various studies have highlighted the increasing vulnerability of Southeast Asian countries to weather–related disasters.

Among these is a report by the International Development Research Centre, which has highlighted areas of Southeast Asia that are highly vulnerable to various environ-mental hazards.

Similarly, other reports, such as those by the World Bank, the United Nations and World Wide Fund, have highlighted the socio-economic factors that increase vulnerabilities, such as rising population densities in cities.

Second, there is existing know-ledge and solutions to control floods, based on the region’s long experience with disasters. These factors are particularly significant in Southeast Asia, which is home to at least three megacities: Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila.

Inertia and its sources
Yet, in spite of such informat-ion, there remains a strong dose of inertia within states to effectively integrate climate-change adaptation strategies with disaster preparedness.

Climate-change adaptation refers to responses to reduce vulnerabilities to the effects of climate change.

It is particularly vital for disaster-prone areas, as it not only enhances a community’s level of preparedness but also its resilience in coping with the increasing frequency and intensity of disasters.

It is therefore important to understand why there is this inertia, much of which can be alleviated through increased regional co-operation and collaboration.

A primary factor contributing to the inertia to integrate climate- change strategies into disaster preparedness is the often complex task of co-ordination across multiple agencies and stakeholders.

The issue of climate change extends beyond the environmental realm and needs changes and inputs from various sectors related to the economy. For flood management, this extends to issues such as waste management, irrigation systems and the extent of groundwater extraction and urbanisation.

The relocation of urban poor communities living in areas highly vulnerable to floods, for instance, requires a substantial amount of resources and time. Attention includes ensuring that new housing and
dwellings are located near sources of economic livelihood.

Such an overhaul of systems in the medium and long term is often not in the interests of policymakers, whose terms in office are us-ually three to five years.

Adaptation and mitigation
A second factor for the inertia is the belated importance given to climate-change adaptation compared with climate-change mitigation. Climate change miti-gation emphasises reducing carbon emissions – the source of climate change – but it doesn’t prevent existing effects of climate change.

Hence, this necessitates meas-ures for adapting to climate change. Countries now have to make up for lost time, as they

had only recently channelled their efforts to measure and control  carbon emissions in the lead-up to the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit.

Reducing carbon emissions has also allowed policymakers to steer the focus to development-related issues such as energy security and meeting the increasing energy demands of developing/indust-rialising countries.

These issues are significant, but they overshadow the effects of climate change, which many communities in Southeast Asian countries are highly vulnerable to.

This relates to a third contributing factor to the inertia: economic growth as a priority.

In terms of erecting flood defences, cities or other significant centres of economic activity are the first to be protected. Bangkok has occasionally been criticised for this, as its flood defences have caused a diversion of floodwaters to other parts of Thailand such as Ayutthaya. Protecting the mega-city is vital to prevent millions of economic losses, but it does not ensure similar regard for communities that are most vulnerable to disasters in less urbanised areas.

Their losses are not just about economics, but about survival – that is, access to essential supplies such as food, water and electricity. Recent studies have thus emphasised the need to build climate resilience in medium-sized cities, which may not have as much resources as the megacities.

Reducing inertia through regional co-operation
What message can be drawn from the slack in integrating climate- change strategies into disaster preparedness? It’s a fact that policymakers often relegate the problem to a lack of capacity. While this is true within national boundaries, it is vital for countries to collaborate across borders to build capacity.

Regional frameworks in Southeast Asia currently exist, some of which are in operation like the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management under the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response. While such initiatives have been operationalised since disasters such as Cyclone Nargis in 2008, regional frameworks need to be strengthened to enhance preparedness and climate change adaptation mechanisms, rather than just responding in times of disasters.

ASEAN’s efforts to streamline and integrate its broad strategies on food and energy security with sustainable development must be matched with greater effectiveness in implementation. In addition, regional co-operation can facilitate the transfer of best practices.

Regional co-operation at the official level has been significant, but more can be done to increase the level of co-operation between ASEAN civil society and business communities. ASEAN must increase its engagement with the scientific community to understand better how climatic changes, as well as other natural and man-made disasters, will affect security.

Greater engagement with the private entities that are keen on corporate social responsibility will also open doors for targeted funding in projects that may not have had enough government support.

It remains to be seen how regional co-operation in disaster preparedness in Southeast Asia will progress. Can ASEAN shift from merely reacting to disasters to be more pro-active in preparing for disasters?

In light of the frequency of natural calamities, ASEAN countries should not wait for another Cyclone Nargis or Typhoon Ketsana to move forward on this front.

Mely Caballero-Anthony is Assoc-iate Professor and Head (on leave) and Sofiah Jamil is Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

RSIS commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. The views of the author/s are their own and do not represent the official position of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, which produces the commentaries.



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