ECHO expert Amelie Yan-Gouiffes discusses with women in Vanuatu how disaster risk reduction can improve their lives. Photo by: Mathias Eick / EU / ECHO / CC BY-ND

The Asia-Pacific is the world’s most disaster-affected region, accounting for 43 percent of all natural disasters, 67 percent of disaster-related deaths and 65 percent of all persons affected by natural disasters in 2015, according to the World Disasters Report released by the Red Cross in October.

The rising incidence of natural disasters has dramatically reshaped funding priorities and programming for NGOs working in the region. Peter Walton, international director for Red Cross Australia, said the shift toward disaster-related programs in the Asia-Pacific had been “pretty significant.”

Last year, $92 billion was spent responding to natural disasters worldwide, of which $45 billion was the Asia-Pacific.

The costs of natural disasters mean responding organizations are shifting from relief toward building community resilience. Aid groups are breaking down silos between humanitarian and development work, and including disaster planning in a range of other projects from education to health care.

“Two or three decades ago, it was more around about response only looking at how we create a fast and effective response,” he explained to Devex. “Don’t get me wrong, that is still valid — disasters will strike. But now it is also about how we lessen the impact, save lives and money.”

The scale of the challenge

Some of the same characteristics that make Asia-Pacific prone to natural disasters also complicate the response. Nichola Krey, head of humanitarian response with Save the Children Australia, told Devex that organizations such as hers face enormous difficulties responding.

“The good news is there is a greater awareness and interest in the problem,” she said. “The bad news is that these initiatives don’t match the scale of the problem we are confronting. Storms are becoming more frequent and ferocious and are one step ahead of the efforts to better prepare for them.”

Smaller-scale disasters, such as flash floods, are less likely to attract media attention, but they are happening with such frequency that they are just as devastating to affected communities.

The geographic and demographic diversity of the region add to the challenge, said Stefan Knollmayer, emergency coordinator with CARE Australia. “CARE works in countries with huge populations facing immense disaster risks that can impact millions of people. At the same time, the region has extremely small island states with tiny, remote populations that are hard to reach.”

Smaller communities, including isolated atolls in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu or Kiribati, lack the resources and abilities to withstand even the most subtle of climatic and environmental changes.

“The cost of reaching these people in times of disaster can be immense due to their isolation, but their suffering is no less acute than those who live in larger countries that are more easily reached,” Knollmayer told Devex.

Changing response to disasters

The frequency of natural disasters has meant that it could not be business as usual for NGOs operating in the Asia-Pacific, Megan Krolik, international program manager for emergencies with Habitat for Humanity, told Devex.

“One of the biggest challenges facing communities in Asia and the Pacific is that they often don't get the chance to fully recover from one disaster event before they are faced with another,” she said. “This means that some communities are constantly rebuilding and recovering and never getting back to the point where they can start to get on with their lives again.”

Response is increasingly being coupled with resilience programming to assist communities to absorb shocks — a shift the Red Cross advocates for in its World Disasters Report.

“We know that the world is only spending $1 in every $8 on disaster risk reduction and community resilience yet there is a really strong body of evidence that for every dollar we spend we actually save considerably more in terms of the cost of response,” Walton said. “More importantly, we save lives.”

Walton urged greater funding for training, disaster management planning, evacuation centers and early warning systems. More investment is also required to build disaster-resilient infrastructure to withstand flood, fire and cyclones. Post-disaster, pre-engaging local suppliers could help economies and communities to respond more quickly, he told Devex.

Collaborative response

Aid groups told Devex that new partnerships with governments and the private sector are key to their new approach to disaster.

“I think most of us have realized how serious the impact of disasters are for communities in Asia-Pacific and it is well past time for all of us, from governments right down to individuals, to get very serious about the significant threats posed by climate change,” Krolik said.

The Red Cross, for example, last year announced a collaboration with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide $38.5 million in funding to support disaster preparedness and response for the Indo-Pacific over four years.

NGOs are also targeting the private sector, where the impact of disaster is often strongly felt.

“It is also about business and communities and individual responsibility to be prepared,” Walton said. “A business is heavily disrupted, the economy is heavily disrupted so there is business incentives to do things differently as well. We are seeking a broad reorientation to increase the level of sound investment across the board.”

Coordinating those diverse actors is vital for disaster mitigation, preparedness and response, according to Krey, but for now, it is a work in progress.

“Coordination is key, but in reality it’s difficult,” she explained. “Greater cooperation between all humanitarian actors is needed and information sharing is the first step. To avoid knee-jerk reactions when disasters strike, work must be done before, during and after any disaster. That requires appropriate assessment and planning, mitigation, climate change adaptation and strengthening the readiness of response efforts.”

Future directions

As natural disasters continue to batter the Asia-Pacific region, NGOs are starting to tear down the walls between humanitarian relief and development. Mitigation and resilience are also increasingly being built into a range of traditional development projects.

“There is a nexus between longer-term development and humanitarian response — they complement each other,” Walton said. “With health work, for example, if you have a healthy community that community is able to absorb the shock of a disaster in a way which a less healthy community would not be able to.”

To build disasters resilience into all development programs, Save the Children are working to break down internal silos. As part of this strategy, the organization last year implemented its Education Safe from Disasters strategy for the Asia-Pacific region, which aims to ensure no children are killed or injured at schools during a disaster and pupils know what to do when one hits. The program also aims to ensure no days of education are lost because of a disaster.

“Growing disasters are a reality that civil society groups cannot ignore,” Krey said. “The line between development work and disasters response is blurring. Disasters can reverse hard won advances in health, education and livelihoods across vulnerable communities, and agencies working purely on development will have to reconsider their approach if they want to protect this work.”

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.