Friday, December 6, 2013

Disaster Risk Reduction in a Shifting Climate

SVRK Prabhakar

1. What can you tell from recent typhoon in Philippine and Cyclone in India? Are there any commonalities and differences and why?

One of the ways of judging the efficacy of disaster risk reduction (DRR) systems of any country is to look at how the government and other stakeholders have responded to a disaster and the subsequent impacts in terms of lives lost and property destroyed. However, comparison of disasters in two countries would have to be made with more caution and require deeper analysis than what the numbers suggest on the surface since the efficacy of DRR measures could be vastly different within a country because the DRR is the primary responsibility of local governments which differ in their capacities, depending on the strength of the event in question and can vary at what time of the year and time of the day of landfall of the event etc. Table 1 provides a comparison of tropical cyclones Phailin that hit Odisha, India on 12 October 2013 and Haiyan that hit Eastern Visayas of Philippines on 8th November. The following observations explain the reasons behind severe damages from Haiyan: a) The typhoon Haiyan was unarguably the stronger typhoon and was at its peak strength when it made landfall, b) The short early warning period (the first early warning available for a stronger Haiyan was 5th November that forecasted a wind speed of 167 kmph while the IMD was able to track the cyclone Phailin 4-5 days before with a forecasted wind speed of 180 kmph), c) early landfall than expected, d) slower and insufficient evacuation measures before landfall of typhoon; also partly due to unwilling people to relocate, e) slow rescue and relief operations due to complete disruption of local government machinery depriving any support to the national government and non-governmental agencies, f) relatively poorer DRR measures due to insufficient financial investments arguably due to skewed political decision making.

Table: Comparison of cyclone Phailin and typhoon Haiyan
Cyclone Phailin
Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda)
Sustained maximum wind speed at landfall (kmph)
Saffir-Simpson Tropical Cyclone Scale[3]
Category 3-4
Category 4
Areas affected
Most of coastal Odisha and two Coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh
Central Philippines with maximum damage in Tacloban area
Last event of similar intensity
14 years
22 years
Time of landfall
22:30 hrs
4:40 hrs
Total deaths[4]
Total affected
12 million
15 million
Number evacuated
1.5 million
1 million
Estimated total damage (billion USD)
Associated secondary disaster
Heavy rainfall and floods
Heavy rainfall and flood
Advance prediction of landfall and intensity
4-5 days
2-3   days
*Information, other than cited, was compiled from various web sources that can be easily traced using Google.

2. Can these recent extreme events be attributed to climate change? How can we make sense out of these?

The topic of attribution has its origin in perceptibly growing number of extreme events and related impacts. Attribution of any particular climatic event to climate change is the most difficult aspect of climate services and our understanding of climate system as a whole has not reached a point where the models employed can help us attribute certain climatic event to climate change with greater accuracy (Read Nature Editorial 19 December 2012). Irrespective of the purpose of attribution (e.g. climate negotiations), the emphasis on attribution may not yield as much value and usefulness compared to putting efforts on advanced early warning systems, strengthening dissemination and efficient application of early warning information for definitive actions on the ground. There is a sufficient agreement among climate researchers for high probability of extreme events in the future and there is a clear evidence for increasing number of extreme events historically. Despite this, there is certain difficulty in attributing the impacts on the ground to climate change for the reason that more and more people have been living in vulnerable areas putting them in the harm’s way than before. The rapid economic growth is only making this trend worse as more and more infrastructure is being constructed in vulnerable areas. Hence, understanding the dynamics of population growth and distribution and its interaction with the natural hazards assumes greater significance in understanding the observed impact trends and for achieving effective risk reduction.

Figure: While authorities were able to save thousands of lives, Phailin has left behind widespread devastation (Photo Courtesy: A. Shreekanth).

3) How government can prepare, nationally, internationally and locally, especially in the Asia Pacific Area?

Thanks to Hyogo Framework of Action (HFA) and subsequent efforts at national and international levels, more countries have some kind of disaster preparedness and response plans and strategies and hence the picture of DRR is far better today than a decade ago. Today, several countries in the region have national authorities, ministries and departments for focused action on DRR. As a result, national and local systems have become better in handling the disasters and cyclone Phailin provides an important evidence for it. The accurate early warning has triggered authorities to evacuate large number of people and hence were able to avert a major disaster. Even in the case of Philippines, despite the widespread criticism, the authorities did manage to evacuate nearly a million within the short period of time available to them. However, there is a lot to be achieved along the continuum of disaster management cycle in a rage of areas which includes strengthening early warning and educating the communities on the importance of heeding to early warning, establishing sufficient number of evacuation shelters, enforcing proper regulations (land use and urban plans) restricting spread of infrastructure in vulnerable areas and strengthening coordination and communication channels across ministries and stakeholders engaged in DRR. While post-disaster rescue and relief has been perfected over the years due to traditionally response oriented national systems, more can be done in better relief management and post-relief and reconstruction planning. DRR cannot be achieved without proper information to rely upon and disaster databases that assist in identifying vulnerable and channeling resources are to be strengthened. The loss and damage databases being established by UNDP are able to bridge this gap to a greater extent. Risk information coupled with strengthened disaster mitigation measures will pave the way for designing and implementing appropriate insurance programs that will reduce the burden on national exchequer and put the people in the driving seat of managing their risks. While these traditional measures are most needed, there is also need to embark upon prospective planning by taking into consideration the increasingly perfecting climate projections into planning processes. Taking up adaptive management practices will go a long way in adjusting the institutional and regulatory systems as our understanding on climate change improve. There is lot of synergy between DRR and climate change adaptation and the tools and strategies perfected by these communities could be mutually beneficial. Today there are more opportunities for these two communities to work together due to growing number of networks and epistemic groups operating in these areas. The discussions for post-2015 Hyogo Framework Action and the future climate regime under UNFCCC begin to provide impetus for this nexus to happen on the ground.

[1] 3 minutes sustained, Cyclone Warning Division, Indian Meteorological Department, 2013
[2] 10 minutes sustained, Severe Weather Bulletin No 6, Philippine Met Agency, PAGASA
[3] There are several tropical cyclone classifications. Following IMD classification, the Cyclone Phailin is classified as Very Severe Cyclone Storm and Typhoon Haiyan as Super Cyclonic Storm.
[4] IMD for Phailin and UN OCHA for Haiyan

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Hidden Vulnerabilities of Asian Cities and Climate Change: Shattering the Myths

SVRK Prabhakar, IGES, Japan

Having come from a rural background, I always had fascinating impression about cities: they are cool, trendy, fashionable, provide better quality of life, have better infrastructure and one can be what they want to be because of multitude of opportunities they provide. No doubt, cities are engines of economic growth for as much as I have seen with no exception. No wonder, they continue to attract the best of the skills available around and far from them. Well, they do have a down side as well. Because they were attracting all the talent, the rural areas are deprived of the skillful human resources and hence have not grown economically as much as their urban counterparts could grow. Part of the problem is to blame the growth center approach, where governments encouraged some areas, cities, to grow at the cost of other areas, villages. The idea is to concentrate the investments at few places and cross-subsidize other areas from the revenue generated. While we were successful in achieving rapid expansion of growth centers, we failed in distributive policies. As a result, rural areas have suffered the most. However, the topic of this blog post is not about how cities failed other areas but how they failed themselves! Time and again the vulnerability assessments have shown that most cities have high vulnerabilities in infrastructure, social and political aspects while few others have economic vulnerabilities. And this has very high relevance when climate change is to impact cities as much as the rural areas, including the ones on coasts. Mind you, most major cities are situated on the coasts, nearly 20% of global population lives on coasts in some of the most populated cities. With nearly 70% of the coastline worldwide are projected to be impacted by the sea level rise, these cities are put to enormous risks of flooding and related losses. Add this to the extreme rainfall events that cities may receive. From this context, there are at least three myths I think need to be busted that have relevance to our collective efforts for comprehensive risk reduction.

Picture: Right or left?

Myth buster I: Rural areas are best fit for food security and livelihood studies!
Not true (well, true if you look at the number of food security and livelihood studies coming from rural areas)! Despite my fascinating views about cities, cities have not vindicated much of my impression about them and that is because the urban governance structures have failed to identify and address vulnerabilities that are seeping below their carpet. Need any evidence? Just take the example of 2008 global food crisis. The research by WFP and others has proven that the urban poor were the most effected during the food crisis. As much as 50-70% of the urban poor representing casual and unskilled laborers experienced a net decline of food intake by 10-15% in most cities they have studied. In addition, the global food crisis has also impacted the livelihoods of petty traders, laborers and peri-urban agriculturists etc. Does this sound any logical? People talk about rural poor when issues like food security and livelihoods come up in the discussion, it never, well almost, occurred to most that it is the bottom strata of urban populace that is probably even more vulnerable than their rural brothers and sisters. It is no brainer that urban poor spend large part of their income on food compared to the rural poor due to relatively high cost of living in urban areas.

Myth buster II: Floods happen only in rural areas!
Well, at least this is what we visualize from most part of watching television: we imagine floods as vast stretch of farm lands inundated by water with folks on their rooftops (blame the media for creating this mental picture?). Not anymore! The 2005 Mumbai floods and 2011 Bangkok floods should completely change this mental picture. These events have clearly shown the problem with our current model of urban development: badly planned infrastructure, blocked natural drainage, and encroachments in the flood plains. We pretended to solve these problems by creating temporary engineering solutions rather than thinking larger and into the future. Whom to be blamed? the poorly staffed urban planning departments or the uncontrolled rural to urban migration or haphazard planning and communication systems of city governments? Studies have time and again indicated how poor the governments were in communicating risks to their city dwellers and how reluctant the insurance companies are to provide affordable flood and fire insurance. Probably the blood is on everybody’s hands. You will be wrong if you think the actual culprits are governments. As is evident from Bangkok floods, even corporations, whom we know as the most risk aware entities on the planet, have ignored the possible flood risks and have installed high-tech manufacturing facilities in flood prone areas and bore the brunt of floods and billion dollar losses.

Myth buster III: Levees are the best means of dealing with coastal floods!
Not true! This point has become very clear from repeated coastal disasters that levees often fail to live to the expectations. The research has clearly indicated how deceptive levees could be in making people believe that they are fully protected, creating a false sense of security. We know that the households living along dykes are the least to heed to any kind of early warning. Despite this, governments continue to argue for dykes and levees than putting strict land use regulations in place.

The big elephant(s) in the room!
We say it is often the big elephant this is ignored in the room and in urban room I see several elephants (after all cities are big!). We are still to come to terms with the dilemma of growing vertical vs horizontal, our current models of eco cities have failed to deliver the promise of reducing external resource dependence for food and water and cities continue to swell by uncontrolled migrants living under sub-par living conditions and dignity than rural areas offer.

If you ask me ‘is everything about urban areas so bad?’, then I would say no! Not at least from the point of view of our fight against global warming. Research has shown that urban areas can provide some of the best means of maximizing GHG mitigation with relatively large adaptation co-benefits. Among other things, this especially comes from managing water consumption and demand such that urban areas can make meaningful contribution to the food-water-energy nexus more than any other single solution (I am not exaggerating). Cities can offer more if we can answer these questions:

Q1. How to make cities closed loop systems (in terms of resource dependence). Cities today have grown so big that their presence is felt hundreds and thousands of miles away from them. Are we practical in seeking cities to be closed loop systems? Probably this question needs to be rephrased and re-emphasized differently.

Q2. How to uncover hidden vulnerabilities to make cities resilient? I will bet that we have more things to learn about cities than we think we need to learn and it is the hidden vulnerabilities that make cities an unknown in the equation of risk reduction. The sad part is we are learning about these hidden variables only after a devastating event. We certainly need more brainstorming than the storms we are going to face!

Q3. How and when cities will be forward looking? I expect most cities may have already started looking into the future since this question is more relevant to cities than any other places we live in and probably part of this question is linked to the dilemma of whether to go for vertical or horizontal. We know that city governments are lost in day-to-day matters and not even the strategic planning departments have time to think strategically. The city planning exercises outsourced  to consultants seldom touch the probable reality of the nearest possible future!

Let me end this ramble with a hope that cities will soon move away from incremental and short term engineering solutions to transformative social approaches which is where most solutions to our problems are hidden!

Don’t agree with me? Drop a line below! 

[Based on a talk delivered at Coastal Cities: Risks from Climate Change and Natural Hazards October 5, 2013; Room 510, Kyoto International Conference Center, Japan. The presentation is available at].

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Loss and damage associated with climate change: Not all is gloom and doom

The international community has progressively reached at a consensus that there will be residual impacts associated with climate change despite implementing adaptation and greenhouse gas mitigation and that there is a need to address these impacts in our research and development efforts. Recognizing the importance of sharing understanding on loss and damage, IGES, APAN and stakeholders have organized an international conference on loss and damage on 30-31st August in Bangkok, Thailand where scientific, policy and practice community have discussed the scientific aspects and way forward.
One photo and two days conference!

It was clear that the concept of loss and damage is not new from the point that they have been dealt by disaster risk reduction community for decades. However, the current debate on loss and damage is also different from the point of view of long time scales (centuries and above) where GHG mitigation could start making perceivable differences in climate change impacts. In the short term, the efforts have to address the residual impacts due to inability to scale up adaptation to the extent needed and failure of adaptation actions due to social, scientific and institutional barriers. While doing so, necessity will arrive where in actors may have to reach an agreement on acceptable, tolerable and intolerable risks. Notwithstanding the ethical issues involved in making these decisions, as what is tolerable for some may not be tolerable to others, one has to make sure that the related interventions are made on rights ground and not on humanitarian grounds.
On the science front, the limited understanding on loss and damage originate from structural and parametric uncertainties we are facing with the scientific tools at our disposal. There has been very limited progress in projecting the extreme events with high certainty due to limitations with scale issues associated with global circulation models, limited understanding on physical processes and their interaction with social and biological systems and issues with the instrumental records. Experiences suggest that addressing loss and damage could be challenging even when ample data is available and it will be even more challenging in areas with little or no data to use. This entails that the interventions has the support of epistemic communities with required expertise and willingness to engage for designing and sharing relevant solutions.
The picture is not that depressing too. Several existing adaptation practices could help in minimizing the loss and damage if one takes the path of transformational adaptation as opposed to incremental adaptation. It requires identifying innovative practices and implementing them at a scale and place untouched by the current experiences. Recognizing synergies, there is a need for climate change adaption and disaster risk reduction community to work closely and implement solutions addressing mutual co-benefits. For this to happen, the conference has called upon the international community to strengthen networks leading to path-breaking research in the area of loss and damage.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Loss and damage from climate change: back to adaptation drawing board?

The term ‘Loss and damage’ refers to the residual losses and damages associated with climate change after all mitigation and adaptation activities are implemented. Though the issue of loss and damage received attention in the sixteenth session of the Conference of Parties that drafted Cancun Agreements in Cancun in 2010, scientists have far before warned the possibility for residual damages from climate change. The Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC released in 2007 has clearly identified the reasons why climate change adaptation, as we know today, may fall short of expectations. Some of the reasons identified were the inability for some of the adaptation actions not implemented to the extent at place and time they are needed, limitations such as policy imperfections that may work counter to adaptation practices, limited understanding on the effectiveness of known options to date and failure of adaptation practices to prove effective for longer time periods. Over and above these imperfections, barriers such as limited capacity to implement adaptation projects, limited financing and limited available adaptation options further pose bottlenecks to achieving maximum adaptation globally. The failure of adaptation practices can happen in all developmental contexts. As evident from the literature reviewed by the IPCC 4th Assessment Report and reports emerging from elsewhere, adaptation practices could fail to prove effective both in developed and developing countries though such possibilities might be higher in developing countries due to underlying developmental and capacity factors. The residual losses associated with climate change has both historical and future angle to it. As discussed above, the evidence has started emerging on the extent to which adaptation practices have failed to perform. Though our understanding on the future climate impacts continue to emerge along with the improving climate predictions, scientists are certain that limits to adapt continue to be an issue for years to come. The greater recognition of residual losses raises several important questions for different stakeholders involved in climate change: how much more adaptation and mitigation is needed to reduce the residual damages, can hard-pushing the existing options will suffice or there is a need for greater innovation, to what extent overcoming the known barriers to climate agenda will help and what does it mean for communities and countries already at risk?

Farmers are one of the most impacted and least heard communities

Taking this entire paradigm into planning strategies is vital for sustaining and improving adaptation efforts at all levels. Recognizing this, the Cancun Adaptation Framework has clearly identified the requirement for international cooperation to understand and mitigate the loss and damage associated with climate change particularly to help the most vulnerable developing countries and has decided to establish a work program on loss and damage for enhancing the related work. Further to these efforts, the Conference of Parties that met at the Doha Climate Change Conference has decided to establish an international mechanism, in the form of a network or forum, to address the loss and damage and to prepare technical papers that identify gaps in our understanding on non-economic losses and gaps in institutional arrangements. The Conference of Parties have also decided to organize an expert meeting to understand and bridge gaps to address slow onset disasters such as droughts and sea level rise.

As is the case with other elements of climate change discussions, the issue of loss and damage has attracted divided response from developed and developing countries. Monitoring the submissions made to the Conference of Parties and related discussions on the sidelines of these events show clear division in terms of components to be included in the international debate on loss and damage (e.g. the issue of compensation to loss and damage emanating from residual climate change impacts after implementing adaptation actions) and necessary institutional arrangements. While developing countries have proposed to introduce international financial mechanisms such as insurance and compensation mechanism for the historical and future residual damages, developed countries have urged to focus on efforts to greater understanding of the issue and implement capacity building measures to address the issue. While this difference in opinion will continue to exist for a foreseeable future, it is incontestable fact that all countries need to work together to address the residual losses associated with climate change since the evidences suggest neither developed nor developing countries are immune to it. Loss and damage could just mean relentless innovation and relentless effective adaptation. People, get back to your drawing boards!