Dr. Manu Gupta, Chair Person- Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network (ADRRN). ADRRN) is a network consists of 34 national NGOs from 16 countries across the Asia-Pacific region. The secretariat is based out of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Dr. Manu Gupta is the co-founder and director of SEEDS, a non-profit organization working in disaster reduction and response in Asia. For over 15 years, Manu has worked with a strong commitment towards strengthening resilience of communities vulnerable to natural disasters and effects of climate change. His work covers a wide spectrum of communities in Asia.
Dr. Manu spoke to Earth Concern Team on various aspects of Disaster in the context of Asia.
What are the links between development and disasters?
Disasters and development are closely linked to one another. Disasters can become a threat to development and likewise "development" can lead to disasters. Unplanned and unregulated development has led to major disasters. This has been observed particularly in cities which have interested the greatest rate of change in recent decades. In Asia, employment opportunities and improved access to basic services have pulled people from rural hinterland into the cities. With disproportionate increases in urban population and growing pressure on already stained infrastructure, the threshold of collapse in event of a hazard strike has lowered significantly. Across Asia in metropolitan cities such as Manila, Jakarta and Mumbai - a spell of heavy rain often leads to a disaster.
There is a popular saying, 'Earthquakes don't kill people, bad buildings do!" In many of the countries building construction and its location is not regulated by local governments. Poorly made buildings which compromise on design, material and cost are the biggest source of life-loss in the earthquakes and tsunamis. Likewise, many areas where land in scarce, people land to take risky decisions on locating their houses- on steep slopes, along sea coasts and within low-lying lands such as rivers beds.
A Japanese adage goes - "A disaster always happens on a Sunday". While making investments in developments planners and policy makers do not want to invest enough on safety. Emergency preparedness, early warning measures are generally not adequate attentions. Result -when hazards strike, the community is completely unprepared.
Finally, there are enough natural barriers, which if recognized and protected can significantly reduce losses due to disasters. Environmental degradation caused by unregulated and unplanned development -ultimately leads to disasters.
Though disaster has always been a threat to development, particularly disaster has been part of development debate since some past few years? What do you think the reasons are?
Catastrophic disasters are huge setbacks to developments gains The Earthquake and Tsunami that struck Japan in March this year led to losses of over USD 300 Billion. In many developing countries of Asia, disasters losses could significantly dent the country’s GDP. Certain regions of the world which experience repeated disasters that hit local populations, are not able to come out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Consider Haiti, the country was hit by a devastating earthquake in 20 10 that wiped out all major assets of the country. In 2009 the country was hammed by four hurricanes. Moreover, Haiti's unregulated development -unsustainable farming and deforestation, lack of building code have considerably increased its vulnerability. Despite continuous international support, Haiti's development has remained both slow and tenuous. Nearby 80 percent of the populations continues to live on less than $ 2 a day, more than half live on less than a dollar a day.
In India, rivers emanating from the mountains such as the Himalaya, Eastern and Western Ghats are getting restless during every successive monsoon suggesting the magnitude increase in the frequencies of natural disasters, especially in Himalaya. In the name of developing this region, network of roads have been dug in various parts which were followed by the exploitation of forest depriving the delicate slopes form vital green cover. This has paved way for soil erosion and creation of innumerable landslide zones. Rivers originating from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh are on rampage carrying enormous quantity fertile soil cover. This has not only threatened the very existence of the people living in the Himalaya but also posed a serious threat of submergence to the people living in the lower plains in northern part of the country.
Disasters have long terms detrimental effects as well Impact on livelihoods is one of them. Cyclone Nargis (Myanmar, 2008) caused course extensive damage and loss of livelihoods, employments and income of poor communities' dependence of small - scale agriculture and fishing. Cyclone Sidr (Bangladesh, 2007) adversely affected the populated area with poverty level ranging from 35 -30 percent of the population reducing the incomes and employment of 2 million people; Impact on health - Contamination of water supplies in floods leads to increase in water bone diseases. Impact on education - In the Philippines, the department of education showed an annual expenditure of US $ 8.6 million in 2006 for repair and reconstruction of schools damaged by typhoons. This is in addition to efforts needed to bring children back to school after the disasters.
Several factors cause such huge setbacks to development gains:
  • Low awareness about vulnerability to disasters. Assessments and knowledge on hazards is not shared with local communities. As such, there is no culture of safety.
  • Poor governance especially at local levels leads to unregulated development. Rules are flouted and buildings are make that do not follow any safety norms.
  • Low level of investments on safety. With scarce resources, planners would rather defer their decisions on investing in safety. This potentially leads to devastating consequences when disaster strikes.
In certain secrets of the world, people have successfully learnt from past experiences and developed a strong culture of safety. Ironically, Japan which despite the huge losses in the recent unprecedented scale of disaster, represents one of the most disaster resilient societies in the world today.
How is the policy environment of Asian governments regarding disaster reduction issues? What are the key challenges?
Policies on disasters reduction have been a recent development in Asia. While Japan took an early lead in the 60s, other countries have begun, developing policies only in the last two decades Philippines, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and India are among the few countries that have developed concrete laws and policies on disaster have developed concrete laws and policies on disaster reduction. Currently the policy environment remains rather uneven though some of the catastrophic disasters such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 have accelerated efforts in certain countries.
Several multi lateral agencies, inter -governmental bodies and civil society networks have been advocating for stronger policies at national and local levels. The key challenges are ensuring stronger policy environments mostly around awareness on the likely damage that disasters can cause and a strong political will. Where elected representatives do see a stake in ensuring people in their constituency are safe, they are willing to talk and listen. Otherwise, the popular mindset is to wait for a catastrophe to happen before any action may be initiated.
Many Asian countries are signatory to the Hyogo Framework of Action (2005-2015). International institutions such as the UN-ISDR (www.unisdr.org) have been pushing governments for its implementation in the respective countries.
What are the specific Asian issues regarding Disaster as Asia is the worst affected region?
By virtue of its geography, Asia is vulnerable to all types of natural hazards. Asia lies in the "Ring of Fire". Major continental shifts take place all the time, making it the most seismically active regions of the world. There are huge inter-continental rivers that regularly lead to floods in the monsoon season. The tropical areas are subject to hammering by fierce winds called cyclones in south Asia and Typhoons in South East Asia.
Unfortunately, Asia is also home to the largest population's share of the world putting millions of people at risk to disasters coursed by natural hazards.
Further, factors that have constituted to high losses are:
  • Existence of many poor and developing economies with low investment on safety issues.
  • Uneven level of education with generally low awareness on disasters and measures for disasters reduction.
  • Poor governance and disaster management capacity.
Other factors include
  • Lack of comprehensive natural disaster assessment capacity.
  • Various post disaster recovery programs, implemented by the government and humanitarian agencies are not focusing risk reductions issues.
Examples from Asia:
  • Kathmandu, Nepal: Every year, settlements in Kathmandu valley experience floods and landslides, almost 20,000. Scientists are expecting another quake of about eight on the Richter scale, which according to the Nepal Red Cross Society (NRCS) would kill at least 50,000 people and leave an estimated 900,000 homeless.
  • Manila, Philippines: Eighteen million residents of the Philippines largest city live in a coastal area prone to flooding during the June-November rainy season. Located in the "Pacific Ring of Fire", Manila residents are also at risk of volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes, and are exposed to about 20 cyclones a year. The growth of slums, estimated to house almost three million people, according to the UN Human Settlements programme (UN-HABITAT), is particularly at risk of flooding and landslides.
  • Dhaka, Bangladesh: Almost 30% of the 14 million people in this city live in slums along the water's edge, exposing them to flooding. The Stanford-based earthquake disaster risk index lists Dhaka as one of the 20 most vulnerable cities in the world to earthquakes.
  • Mumbai, India: The fourth largest city in the world with 20 million people, and 6.7 million slum dwellers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is also one of the top 10 most vulnerable cities in terms of floods, storms and earthquakes. According to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), Mumbai is the most vulnerable in the world in terms of total population exposed to coastal flood hazard.
  • Jakarta, Indonesia: Forty percent of the land area of Jakarta is below sea-level. As a result, its 10 million inhabitants are at risk of flash floods, particularly along the 13 river systems which pass through the Jakarta region.
What are the key challenges in public awareness in Asia?
One important challenge is to stimulate and develop ways to link the different stakeholders to various dimensions of disaster risk reduction. Often, education, public awareness raising, training and information sharing activities take time to set up and sustain. The challenge is to be able to sustain efforts and keep important stakeholders actively interested and engaged in the efforts.
Building long term local alliances between Universities, Schools and communities; Designing programmes that clearly reflect local vulnerabilities and risk reduction measures need to be brought in.
Another challenge is to make these opportunities, partners and resources accessible. There is a need for closely linked national, regional and international information centres to identify, expand, order, synthesize, translate (to different languages) and disseminate information. At the same time, strategies to reduce gender, age and economic barriers to the use of new information and communication technologies need to be promoted.
Some of the key challenges when it comes to public awareness are as given below,
  • Differences in dialect, regional languages used.
  • Religious belief and local culture including traditions and rituals.
  • Ethnic structure and composition of the community.
  • Differences in the thinking patterns between the different ages and generations reflected in the community.
  • Availability and accessibility to media
Around the world, agencies have experimented with innovative mediums on communicating on risk reduction depending on stakeholder capacities. There are several storehouses available with a rich array of public awareness material.
What are the key issues related to climate change and disaster?
There are many emerging studies and suggestions on exploring links between climate change and disaster.
It is now proven that climate change has increased fury and frequency of hydro-meteorological disasters. Climate change has added new locations affected by disasters, where communities had no history and therefore are not prepared to face such disasters.
However, this is still a developing science. Some of the key issues related to climate change and disaster that need to be studied in near future would be :
  • Need to improve preparedness and response capability, specially to unpredictable disaster events.
  • Need for enhanced capacity in flood contingency planning.
  • Need to build national and regional capacity for drought management.
  • Need for downscaling climate data for easier interpretation and planning at local levels.
Recent developments have also advocated the idea of "Climate Smart Disaster Risk Management", where multiple objectives of adapting to climate change, managing disaster risks and poverty alleviations are examined from a common lens. Such approaches will hold immense value as climate change impacts are changing the nature of risks and vulnerabilities of local communities.
People say, disaster issues are still isolated within the technical groups of people and agencies do you think, there is a need of integration with broader issues of poverty, gender etc.? In the past, disaster management was in the exclusive domain of specialized scientific institutions and experts. The thrust was on high level investments in infrastructure (river dykes) and emergency equipments to be used by emergency response agencies.
However, lessons learnt from major disasters have revealed that the communities that are hit by disasters are actually the first responders. It therefore became imperative that for disaster management to achieve its objectives of reducing life loss and injury, it has to be brought into the domain of ordinary people and integrated within the larger framework of socio-economic parameters.
Much of the efforts by civil society, and in certain cases even governments is to propagate "Community Based Disaster Risk Management". Communities are expected to play leading role in local level assessments, capacity building, planning and preparing their own first response mechanisms. Community based disaster risk management incorporates factors such as gender and age vulnerability, poverty alleviation and other development goals.
What is ADDRN and what are your key agendas? And what are your value additions?
The Asian Disaster Reduction & Response Network (ADRRN) is a network consists of 37 national NGOs from 16 countries across the Asia-Pacific region. With a strong footprint in the region, the network members are constantly engaged with local communities strengthening their ability to combat disasters, providing humanitarian aid like food, water, shelter and health care, protecting critical facilities like schools and hospitals, creating awareness, advocating for policy changes and improving the capacity of community based organizations. The secretariat is based out of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Major objectives of ADRRN are:
  • To develop an interactive network of NGOs committed to achieving excellence in the field of disaster reduction and response.
  • To raise the relevant concerns of NGOs in the Asia-Pacific region to the larger community of NGOs globally, through various international forums and platforms.
  • To promote best practices and standards in disaster reduction and response.
  • To provide a mechanism for sharing reliable information and facilitating capacity building among network members and other stakeholders.
Within the political space available in inter-government and international forums, ADRRN is strongly advocating for community led approaches and the need to address emerging vulnerabilities.
At the same time, ADRRN is focused on building the capacities of Civil Society organizations build their own capacity within the country to tackle emerging challenges in disaster and climate change. At the same time, it is helping member organizations confront some of the typical problems in Asia such as conflicts and complex emergencies.
Civil Society Organizations in Asia generally have poor reputation in their own country mostly on account of poor governance and lack of transparency. ADRRN is closely working with its membership in promoting accountability and transparency in their operations thus building their own credibility with governments and communities.
Reducing Disaster Risk is a job for all” Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary General addresses the first ever UN General Assembly Informal Thematic Debate on Disaster Risk Reduction, 9th February, 2011.Know More
Building Livelihood Resilience in Changing Climate” held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 3 -5  March 2011 organized by Wetlands International & Cordaid.Know More
Pakistan's worst floods in 80 year

Pakistan's worst floods in 80 years have killed more than 1,600 people and affected up to 20 million - more than a tenth of the population. The United Nations estimates at least 8 million people need urgent assistance.
A rich insight on humanitarian aid, risk reduction and development issues in the Asian region through stories, research papers, books, photo essays and videos.
In the morning of the rain, I was stranded in a tiny building along Commonwealth Avenue.I was there with my sister for a seminar that, like many other engagements that Saturday, would never materialize. I left the house early, thinking it was just one of those rainy mornings where some flooding might delay engagements, but otherwise nothing out of the ordinary
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