World leaders are gathering at the United Nations (UN) in New York for the Climate Action Summit tomorrow. Their goal is simple: to increase ambition and accelerate action in the face of a mounting climate emergency.
For many, this means countries decarbonising their economies by 2050; but that is only half the equation. Equally ambitious plans are also needed to build the resilience of vulnerable sectors and communities being battered by climate-related disasters of increasing frequency, intensity and unpredictability.
Nowhere is this reality starker than in the Asia-Pacific, which has suffered another year of devastation. Iran's floods earlier this year were unprecedented. Floods and heatwaves in quick succession in Japan caused widespread destruction and loss of life. Last year, India's Kerala state had its worst floods in a century.
In several South Asian countries that had been suffering from drought, weeks of heavy monsoon rains this month unleashed floods and landslides. Across northeast and South Asia, record high temperatures have been set.
The latest research from UN's Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific shows that intense heatwaves and drought are more frequent, unusual tropical cyclones are originating outside traditional risk zones and following new tracks, and floodings are unprecedented. The severity and frequency will only increase as concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere rise.
The poor and vulnerable are taking the biggest hit as disasters slow down and often reverse poverty reduction, widening inequality. Greater disaster exposure increases child malnutrition and mortality, and forces poor families to take children out of school, entrenching poverty.
Disasters also perpetuate inequalities between countries. A small developing Pacific island state is three to five times more at risk of disaster than elsewhere in our disaster-prone region. Vanuatu has faced annual losses of over 20 per cent of its gross domestic product while Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have faced losses of more than 5 per cent of GDP.
But amid this cycle of disaster and vulnerability lies a golden opportunity for investment. The Global Commission on Adaptation recently found that more than US$7 trillion in net benefits between now and 2030 could be generated by investing in early-warning systems, climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dryland agriculture, mangrove protection, and more-resilient water resources.
So where can Asia-Pacific countries start? First, provide people with the means to overcome shocks by increasing social protection. Developing countries in the region spend only about 3.7 per cent of GDP on social protection, compared to 11.2 per cent globally, leaving people vulnerable to sickness, unemployment and disaster. In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, we saw the effectiveness of social protection as the government quickly transferred much-needed cash to the poor and vulnerable.
Second, countries can shift the financial burden of disasters from the poor with disaster risk finance and insurance. Mongolia, for example, has an insurance scheme for dzud, where droughts and pasture shortage lead to mass livestock deaths. Countries can also pool disaster risks through schemes such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nation's Disaster Risk Financing and Insurance.
Third, countries can increase investment in technology and big data. Risk analytics driven by artificial intelligence, combined with sensor and geospatial data, can strengthen early-warning systems. Big data, including from mobile phones, can help identify and locate vulnerable populations to ensure faster and more targeted disaster relief. There is much potential but much more investment is needed to make technology an integral part of disaster risk response and building resilience.
Climate-related disasters are likely to increase in the Asia-Pacific. This is our new climate reality. The summit is the perfect platform to commit to helping communities adapt to this reality before decades of hard-won development gains are washed away.
Kaveh Zahedi is deputy executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)
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