Need for greater resistance to floods and stormsNeed for greater resistance to floods and storms | Inquirer Opinion

Need for greater resistance to floods and stormsNeed for greater resistance to floods and storms

/ 05:16 AM September 01, 2017

Hurricane “Harvey,” which pummeled the Texas coast in the United States, is just the latest manifestation of a jump worldwide in extreme floods and storms. The common refrain everywhere is that nobody ever expected anything like this. But as climate change aggravates hydrometeorological events, these catastrophes have become the new norm. The only lasting response is to cut greenhouse gases and contain global warming, but meanwhile we must also build urgently for greater resilience to the devastation.

With the intensity of weather-related hazards on the rise, and more people in harm’s way, these events are affecting ever more people and causing greater financial damage to economies and households. But effective measures have increasingly been initiated in recent years to provide early warning systems and more robust evacuations of populations living in the paths of typhoons; as a result, the death tolls from similar events have declined.

A striking example is how the population of Tulang Diyot—a small island off mainland Cebu in the Philippines—was saved from the wrath of Typhoon “Yolanda” (Haiyan) in 2013 because evacuations were enforced. While Yolanda destroyed all houses on the island, there were no casualties among the 1,000 inhabitants. Japan’s Meteorological Agency recently updated its Evaluation Alert System to underscore the imperative for evacuations in these emergencies, and to map the intensity of weather-related hazards and people’s special needs.


Basic to building resilience is having accessible infrastructure for safe water, sanitation and electricity for health facilities. From Asia to Latin America, breaks in these lifelines are major causes of breakdowns in law and order that often follow natural disasters. Essential public services need to be assured of uninterrupted power supply, protected access routes, and safe water and sanitation. Disaster-proofing hospitals, by one measure, adds less than a tenth to the cost of new hospitals, while rebuilding a destroyed hospital virtually doubles its initial cost.


Safe houses, breakwaters and evacuation routes are going to be increasingly important. Indonesia is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, regularly experiencing tsunamis, landslides, storms, floods and drought. In 2004, storms and floods from one of the deadliest tsunamis in history killed some 230,000 people in 14 countries around the Indian Ocean—nearly 170,000 of them in Indonesia. The country’s post-tsunami efforts included the construction of evacuation centers linked to road networks in Banda Aceh, which provided a salutary lesson on preparedness.

Disaster readiness also involves zoning regulations to restrict new development in hazard-prone areas and building codes to protect businesses, homes and neighborhoods. These are an essential part of minimizing the kind of disruption to supply chains and information networks that we saw during the massive floods in Sri Lanka, Chennai in India, and Thailand in the past decade. Such measures, however, are tough to implement because of conflicting interests between people’s livelihood and their safety. But with rising sea levels and temperatures, previous norms of the safe distance to live from a coastline must be revised.

With the increased frequency of floods and storms, governments and external financiers need to facilitate credit for rebuilding lives and livelihood, especially for the poor and vulnerable. We have also seen high payoffs to investing in education, information sharing and capacity development in dealing with these calamities. The weak handling by authorities of Hurricane “Katrina” in 2005, the costliest disaster in the United States, has had lessons for coordination across government units during Hurricane Harvey, the deadliest flood in the United States in decades.

The new norm with weather-related disasters is a true game-changer calling for far stronger defenses. Just as governments try to cushion financial shocks, so they must invest in reducing disaster risk, as its consequences are even graver. In sum, building disaster resilience needs to become a core development business everywhere.

Vinod Thomas is professor at the Asian Institute of Management, Manila, and author of “Climate Change and Natural Disasters” (2017).

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