|Storm Warning: increasing disaster trends (21 May 08)|
| Source: Bangkok Post, 11 May 08
With the number of natural disasters on the rise each year, mass tragedy like that seen with Burma's Cyclone Nargis is bound to repeat itself unless people get ready, writes TUNYA SUKPANICH
The storm, Cyclone Nargis, which struck southern Burma last week has been declared the worst natural disaster since the Tsunami in 2004. The number of people dead is believed to be as high as 100,000 persons while an estimated one million people have been left homeless. As a basis for comparison, Cyclone Sidr, which hit Bangladesh last year, claimed about 3,500 lives.
Though India's meteorological agency, which monitors cyclones in the Indian Ocean, said it informed Burmese authorities of the storm 48 hours before it hit, Burmese authorities failed to issue a timely warning.
Meanwhile, Supareuk Tansrirattanawong, director-general of Thailand's Meteorological Department, warns that Thailand could face storms and floods caused by the tropical storm Rammasoon, which started east of the Philippines, in the coming days. He expects more than 30 tropical storms to come from the Pacific Ocean this year.
Although natural disasters are often presented as rare and unexpected tragedies, the reality is that such events are taking place more frequently, affecting more people, and causing higher economic damages than ever before.
While existing historical records don't allow us to see the whole picture, the increasing trend in disaster incidents is unquestionable.
Natural disasters are not limited to cyclones, earthquakes, or flash floods. It is also expected the world will experience more and more extreme heat waves and cold spells because of climate change.
Dr Bhichit Rattakul, executive director of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC), said that the people should expect more disasters. He especially expects to see events involving the "hydro-meteorological system" to occur more often.
"Flooding, landslides and mudslides have become annual events in many Asian countries. And at the same time, they have claimed lives and cost severe damages to the economy."
According to Mr Aslam Perwaiz, an ADPC project manager, floods are among the most destructive of natural disasters for the Asian region and occur almost every year.
He cited recent figures from the World Disaster Report that between 1994 and 2003, a total of 1,160 major flood disasters were reported worldwide.
411 of those took place in Asia, affecting more than 1.3 million people and claiming 45,961 lives and US$121,438 million in damages.
Mr Perwaiz noted that, though the number of deaths caused by severe flooding has decreased over the last decade, the number of affected populations and economic loss have increased significantly.
"The trend shows we need better preparedness at national, provincial, and local levels to make sure that appropriate and effective response measures are taken during the flood emergency to minimise the loss of lives and properties," he said.
According to Dr Bhichit, floods are a recurring event in the Lower Mekong Basin. In certain areas, annual flooding can be forecast, and so communities should be able to manage the situation if they have plans and facilities.
"It is time to shift from being reactive - to respond to floods when they occur - to being proactive. Preparing beforehand has been achieved at a certain level in recent years," he said, adding that Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam have suffered flood disasters due to the overflowing of the Mekong River for many decades.
To help countries manage the risk of flooding, the ADPC and the Mekong River Commission (MRC) initiated a Flood Preparedness Programme (FPP) five years ago. The FPP's objective is to prevent, minimise or mitigate people's suffering and economic losses due to floods, while at the same time preserving their environmental benefits.
As ADPC project manager Aslam Perwaiz put it: "The project aims to reinforce the region's commitment to 'live with floods'."
The ADPC has also launched a project in three frequently-flooded areas - Lao PDR's Khammuone Province, Cambodia's Kratie Province, and Vietnam's Tien Giang Province.
Central Laos' Khammuone Province is on the Mekong River, and it, along with Savannakhet province are two of the most flood-prone provinces due to their geographical and physical characteristics.
Meanwhile, Cambodia's Kratie province, located northeast of Phnom Penh, also lies along the Mekong River and is one of the areas most severely affected by the flooding of it.
ADPC campaign material on the Flood Preparedness Programme.[C]See STORM WARNING Page9
According to ADPC, each rainy season, the Mekong River floods its banks by up to four metres of water which flood from the flat plains of Kratie to the Vietnamese border.
Hnin Nwe Win of ADPC mentions in the report that up to four million hectares of lowland area in Cambodia are inundated annually. Since 1961, floods have devastated Region 8 different times.
It is said that the flood in 2000, which killed 100 people, damaged farmland, and left a million Cambodian and Vietnamese homeless, was the worst in over 70 years.
Tien Gian Province in Vietnam is located in the Mekong Delta and is prone to disasters from eastern sea tides as well as flooding of the Mekong River. Major, prolonged flooding took place each year from 2000-2002. The waters, which took four months to recede, caused severe damage to the economy, as well as to government and private properties. ADPC's project has been separated into three phases, starting from 2003 to 2008.
In the first phase, the skills of key provincial, district and commune officials and committees were enhanced to develop and implement the FPP.
This was accomplished through specific training courses and consultative workshops held at the provincial and district levels. Meanwhile in the second two phases (2005-2008), officials began acting on their training improving facilities at Safe Areas or implementing school flood safety management plans.
In Cambodia, Commune Committees for Disaster Management were set up to carry out FPP activities, while Vietnam developed Flood and Storm Control Committees at provincial, district and commune levels.
Aside from the training of officials, ADPC launched School Flood Safety Programmes in target areas to raise awareness among teachers and students and mobilise them in implementing disaster plans to help their communities.
During floods, people should seek higher ground and safe facilities where they can stay until the disaster passes. In the ADPC project, provincial and district authorities selected "safe areas" for the evacuation and temporary shelter of flood affected people and their livestock.
These areas are high and open places near flood-prone communities. In Kratie province, Mr Perwaiz said there were 76 such areas designated in the three districts.
The safe areas, which are scattered among communes, are small. For example a safe area in Bosleave Commune can accommodate and support 40 families.
In the area, people are able to access health and sanitation facilities for clean drinking water and latrines. Because of their small size, the villagers can maintain the facilities themselves for sustainable use.
In Khammoune, establishing safe areas have also been a priority. Their efforts have included designating and creating safe spaces, as well as construction of a nearby food store that can be used at times of emergency.
FPPs provide for the preparation of the emergency medicines and relief materials like food and fodder for livestock that will be needed with the displacement of people in flooding disasters. As part of the project, there has also been work done to install community-based early warning systems and to develop protocol to ensure timely and effective flood warnings in target areas.
Mr Perwaiz pointed out that the success of Cambodia's FPP can be seen in how the plan has developed and been incorporated into local development planning. "This means that the community authorities really understand the significance of the plan. This will make the plan sustainable in future,"
These three FPPs are expected to serve as models that are applied to the many other areas facing regular and more frequent flood disasters.
"Only with understanding and commitment from local authorities and the local people, the FPP will become efficient and sustainable," concluded Dr Bhichit.