Heavy rains in Thailand and Cambodia since July 2011 have resulted in high socio-economic costs from flood damage and has claimed at least 500 lives. For Thailand with areas only two metres above sea level, the flood is said to be the country’s worst in the past 50 years, with a third of its provinces declared disaster zones. However, such incidents are not all that new nor unexpected, for two main reasons:

Picture by Philip Roeland

Firstly, various studies have highlighted the increasing vulnerability of Southeast Asian countries to weather–related disasters. Among these is the Report by the International Development Research Centre, which has highlighted areas in Southeast Asia that are highly vulnerable to various environmental hazards. Similarly, other reports, such as those by the World Bank, United Nations and World Wide Fund have highlighted the socio-economic factors that increase vulnerabilities, such as rising population densities in cities. Secondly, there is existing knowledge and solutions to control floods, based on the region’s long experience with disasters. These factors are particularly significant in Southeast Asia, which is home to at least three megacities – Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila.

Yet, in spite of such information, there remains a strong dose of inertia within states to effectively integrate climate change adaptation strategies with disaster preparedness…

To read the rest of this commentary published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies [in pdf],  please click here.

Recent media reports on the new wave of floods and landslides around the world have yet again highlighted the critical need for disaster preparedness and contingency plans to address the increasing intensity of weather related disasters. However, what has also played out more significantly in these incidents have been weather-related disasters’ direct adverse implications on sources of energy and economic development.

No Drive Thru, here.

This was particularly evident in Australia where the flooding of Queensland’s coal mines are predicted to cause an increase in the price of steelmaking coal as high as $500 per tonne , thus affected more than 90 per cent of Australia’s exports. The economic costs of recovering from the floods are also proving to have indirect costs on other aspects of development, where the education and health sectors are expected to bear the flood’s clean up costs. Such costs would, however, only be the tip of the iceberg as other parts of the country are preparing for impending floods.

Given such effects on a developed country such as Australia, one cannot but imagine extensive damage that would occur in developing countries, which also face a range of  pre-existing concerns that include poverty, poor governance and the lack of capacity to address the increasing rate of intense weather related disasters. The recent floods in Sri Lanka for instance have highlighted adverse effects to food security and even possible complications in former conflict regions that have undetonated mines. While the Philippines continues to recover from the massive damage of Typhoon Ketsana in 2009, government officials need to also deal with the effects of weather related disasters in other less developed regions of the country.

The future is not all bleak as several studies have already noted the potential costs and risks of various weather related disasters as well as the necessary solutions available to address these climate vulnerabilities. The Asian Development Bank, for instance, has highlighted Southeast Asia’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change and the various measures can be taken to mitigate these effects, while UNESCAP has examined ways of reducing vulnerability to disasters, building resilience and protecting hard-won development gains.

Despite such policy recommendations, it is still difficult for countries – whether developed or developing – to effectively address these concerns. Difficulties in coordination amongst various levels of governance and strained resources remain to be sore points and to some extent outweigh capacity building measures that only often bear fruit in the long term. It is therefore necessary for states to demonstrate their commitment to working with local and regional communities in formulating long term solutions beyond the realm of disasters. States must ensure that communities play a proactive role  not only in mitigating and preparing for the disasters, but also are at the helm of local development initiatives that would be able to sustain themselves, rather than depend on national/federal inputs.

This blog post also appears on the MacArthur Asia Security Initiative Blog.

ORCHARD ROAD IS FLOODED!!!! on Twitpic “HAAAH???! ORCHARD ROAD KENA FLOODED, AH?!” was a common phrase muttered (in true Singlish fashion)  by many shocked Singaporeans on 16 June 2010. Flash floods due to heavy rains that morning had temporarily inundated the heart of Singapore’s iconic shopping stretch at around 10am.  I must admit, I was initially shocked as well. While there have been a series of flash floods happening in other parts of Singapore, never in the past 20 years had this glitzy part of town been engulfed by a sea of “Milo”.

But in true Singapore fashion, government response to the emergency was swift. Civil defense forces were on site pumping the clogged water in the basement carparks and lower levels of shopping centres. Sometime just after lunch,  most of the milo had been cleared away.

Aside from shock, there were also  some other feelings expressed. For one, there seemed to be a morbid sense of amusement, for the fact that this (plus the numerous trees falling along the roads and expressways) was perhaps the most “exciting” thing to happen in Singapore since the last major Earthquake in Indonesia, whose tremors rippled through the concrete island.

But then again, can you really blame them? While Singapore has been blessed with a relatively highly efficient and functioning system, it inevitably makes us assume a sense of immunity, and thus perceive even a minor mishap to be a major disaster. This has been reflected in feelings of anxiety and paranoia of such “disasters”.

“OMG how could THIS happen to SINGAPORE?! Impossible!! It looks like Jakarta!”

But seriously, how could it not happen to Singapore? An island situated in the tropics with neighbouring regions highly susceptible to cyclones – how could it not? Singapore is clearly not an exception.

Accompanying such anxiety would be a tendency to complain and start a blame game.  Government officials have provided an explanation to what caused the Orchard road flood, which stated that despite the Stamford Canal drainage system’s ability to withstand the high level of rainfall,  large amounts of debris/vegetation built up in Stamford Canal, had caused the blockage within the canal. So who’s to blame here? The public for littering? Or perhaps even the effects of urbanisation that causes greater likelihood of soil erosion? More criticism came after subsequent flooding in other parts of the island later that week.

Whatever the case maybe, it is important that the people of Singapore realise that our disasters are merely a tip of the iceberg of what the “real world” across the seas are facing. The failure to be resilient in such minor incidents, may not equip us enough for tougher situations. Disaster preparedness cannot be ensured  from the top-down, but must also be the responsibility of the masses, wherein they are able to face challenges without assuming the need for the state to intervene to alleviate their discomfort. (That said, there was certainly resilience amongst the numerous women that braved the Orchard Road flood for the Mango sale!)

For Pete’s sake, its just a flashflood. Let’s Get Real, Not Hysterical.

A couple of publications that are 3 months dated…. but hey, better late than never!! ;-D

Update on COP 15: States’ Deliberations and Decisions

By Caballero-Anthony, M. Kuntjoro, I.A. & Jamil, S. NTS Alert, January 2010/1, Centre for NTS Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

 Update on COP15: Civil Society Actions and Reactions to COP 15

By Caballero-Anthony, M. Kuntjoro, I.A. & Jamil, S. NTS Alert, January 2010/2, Centre for NTS Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies