It has been a terrible period for countries in the Asia-Pacific region, with natural calamities of one kind or another bringing death and destruction to their lands. On September 26, Typhoon Ketsana ploughed through the Philippines before tearing into Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The storm produced the worst flooding in decades across the northern Philippines, caused extensive damage in the countries it swept through, and killed several hundred people. Before the Filipinos could catch their breath, Typhoon Parma hurtled through the less populated north-eastern part of their island nation before heading towards Taiwan. On September 29, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake set off a lethal tsunami that levelled the idyllic Pacific islands of Samoa, American Samoa, and Tonga. The towering walls of water claimed many lives and wiped out whole villages. Less than a day later, a quake of magnitude 7.6 shook southern Sumatra in Indonesia. Some 1,000 people have been killed in the coastal city of Padang and it is feared thousands more lie trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings. The temblor has torn up roads, making it difficult to reach aid to devastated villages in the interior.
Natural disasters are, of course, beyond human control. But human action and inaction can profoundly affect their outcome, exacerbating or mitigating their effects on people. This point was forcefully made in the United Nations 2009 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. Although natural calamities strike the wealthier nations too, the risk of death and economic loss from such events is heavily concentrated in developing countries and within these countries, it is the poor who disproportionately suffer. As U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon observed: “Pre-emptive risk reduction is the key. Sound response mechanisms after the event, however effective, are never enough.” With just such foresight, Japan has been able to build one of the world’s most prosperous economies on densely populated islands that face the ever-present threat of earthquakes and tsunamis. India too is vulnerable to natural calamities. A report produced by the Central government a few years ago noted that about 60 per cent of the country is prone to earthquakes of various intensities; over 40 million hectares can be flooded; about eight per cent of the land can be hit by cyclones; and 68 per cent of its area is susceptible to drought. Governments in India and other developing countries must find practical ways to reduce their vulnerability to a variety of natural hazards that extract such a cruel toll from their people and economies.