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Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012

Sandy's lesson for Asia: invest in coastal disaster defenses

SINGAPORE — As Hurricane Sandy, with its devastating winds, rain and ocean surges battered New York and other areas along the U.S. Atlantic recently, another fierce tropical storm was sweeping through the South China Sea, hitting the Philippines, Vietnam and China.

Meanwhile, a cyclone churned across the Bay of Bengal, veering away from Sri Lanka at the last minute before striking southeast India, causing extensive damage.

Although much smaller in strength and size than Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Son-tinh, which smashed into the northern Philippines, Vietnam and southern China, killed as many as 30 people, forced more than 176,000 to leave their homes, and caused an estimated $145 million in economic damage as power outages, floods and landslides disrupted normal life.

It was a reminder that cyclonic storms, drawing their destructive power from warming tropical waters and the moisture-laden atmosphere, are more of a menace in the Asia-Pacific region than anywhere else in the world. Known as hurricanes in the Caribbean Sea and near the Atlantic Ocean coast of North America, and cyclones or typhoons in the South China Sea, Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, these periodic storms are posing a major economic and social challenge to the Asia-Pacific region, according to a recent United Nations report.

Presented to an Oct. 23 ministerial conference in Indonesia on disaster risk reduction, the report warned that as regional growth and urbanization have exploded in the past few decades, the number of people living in cyclone-prone areas has nearly doubled, to about 121 million.

Most new development in the region has been along coastlines and in floodplains, locations highly exposed to sea level rise, storm surges and inundation. Sea levels are slowly rising from thermal expansion as the water warms and from the melting of land-based ice, particularly at the polar caps.

The combination of coastal development, climate change and storm patterns has reached a point where the U.N. calculates that the Asia-Pacific region now "experiences more than 85 percent of global economic exposure to tropical cyclones."

The Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2012 was published by the Bangkok-based U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the U.N.'s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). It received little attention in the media at the time.

But many climate scientists have warned in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that climate change and global warming caused by increasing global greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels and clearing tropical forests, are intensifying extreme weather, including tropical storms.

Kevin Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in the United States, put it this way: "The sea surface temperatures along the Atlantic coast (of the U.S.) have been running at over 3 degrees Celsius above normal for a region extending 800 kilometers offshore all the way from Florida to Canada. Global warming contributes 0.6 C to this.

"With every degree Celsius, the water holding of the atmosphere goes up 7 percent, and the moisture provides the fuel for the tropical storm, increases its intensity, and magnifies the rainfall by double that amount compared to normal conditions."

Summarizing recent scientific research, the U.N. report said that the effects of climate extremes and variation suggest that while the number of tropical cyclones are not increasing in number, more of them are stronger.

With more than one third of the 305 Asia-Pacific cities in coastal areas, this makes the region more susceptible to ever greater potential losses from severe storms.

"Our shared challenge in Asia and the Pacific is to control both the growing rate of exposure and rising vulnerability," said Noeleen Heyzer, ESCAP's executive secretary, when the U.N. report was released. "Exposure to hazards has multiplied as urban centers grow and people and economic activities expand into increasingly exposed and hazard-prone land," she added.

Some Asia-Pacific countries that have been hit hard by cyclones in the past have taken steps to better protect their coastal populations and economic assets. For example, Bangladesh has invested over $10 billion in coastal management and flood control, resulting in lower disaster losses.

However, many Asia-Pacific coastal cities are expanding chaotically, with many slums and little effective urban planning.

The lesson for the region from Hurricane Sandy must be to improve coastal urban planning, storm protection, and relief and recovery when disasters strike. This is expensive and will take time. But with so much economic growth at stake, tropical storm mitigation measures are an essential investment in Asia's future.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

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