Published: 19 August 2022
Mr Ekkaphab Phanthavong, Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN,
Ms Barbara Gonzenbach, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Switzerland to Singapore,
Heads of the National Disaster Management Organisation of the ASEAN Member States,
Colleagues and friends,
1. Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to the 7th ASEAN Strategic Policy Dialogue on Disaster Management (SPDDM). Due to the pandemic restrictions, SPDDM was held virtually last year. It is good that we can meet again this year in person, and I think from the earlier interactions I had with some of the speakers, it is a very welcome change from what it has been over the past two years.
2. Today is also World Humanitarian Day and I would like to acknowledge the noble contributions of disaster management practitioners and humanitarian workers around the world for their enormous contributions to humankind.
Evolving Challenges in Disaster Management
Interlinkages between Climate Change and Disasters
3. The United Nations has rightly said that climate change is a “defining issue of our time”, and ASEAN is one of the regions in the world most impacted by climate change. We will see sea levels rising, and more extreme changes in weather patterns, and these will intensify the occurrences of natural disasters. In 2020, ASEAN experienced 530 natural disasters. In 2021, this almost tripled to about 1,400. As many of us who are students of statistics know, two points themselves do not make a trend, but we also know that those numbers that I just presented from 2020, 2021 are reflective of the broader trend of increasing occurrences of natural events that bring potential disasters.
4. The increased frequency of natural disasters has catastrophic consequences for lives and livelihoods. Last year, disasters in this region resulted in over 1,000 fatalities, 16,000 injured, and more than 350 people missing. Just imagine the stress upon their families.
5. In December 2021, Typhoon Rai in the Philippines caused more than 400 deaths. In the same month, torrential downpours in Malaysia caused flash floods, one of the worst in years. Excessive rainfall has also been recorded in many other countries causing landslides and widespread destruction. In recent months, record high temperatures were reported across UK, Europe as well as Asia.
6. Disasters impact poorer communities more. If we take the Indian Ocean tsunami which struck on Boxing Day of 2004, that tsunami killed at least 220,000 people and left 1.6 million people homeless. Following the disaster, a survey by non-profit organisation, Oxfam, found that four times as many women than men were killed. I was in fact very curious why this was so and what the Oxfam study found was that women were more likely to be at home that day, and when they heard the news of the tsunami, they went out in search of the children and as a result, exposed themselves to greater risks of death and did not have the ability to protect themselves against what was coming. And that speaks to when it comes to emergency preparedness, we have to consider the very different patterns of life people have, and the vulnerable groups who may be more exposed. Vulnerable communities living below or near poverty line were even more profoundly affected due to the lack of resources for recovery.
7. Over the years, ASEAN has made significant progress in disaster management.
8. All ten ASEAN Member States have ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement, a global framework to mobilise efforts to limit the increase in global temperature to 1.5 degrees celsius.
9. The ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response Work Programme 2021-2025 has incorporated the main provisions of the Sendai Framework and Sustainable Development Goals. The new work programme focuses on disaster risk reduction, capability and capacity building, and partnerships. All of these efforts that could have saved those 220,000 people who perished in the Indian Ocean tsunami and the 1.6 million people who were made homeless.
10. Even with this progress, we can do more and I would like to suggest three areas for all of us to focus our attention on, and these are in building resilience, partnerships, and innovation.
Greater Investments in Building Resilience and Early Warning
11. First, on building resilience. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, for every dollar that is invested in disaster resilient infrastructure, four dollars are saved from the need to reconstruct damaged infrastructure. The ratio is 4:1.
12. Prevention therefore should always be better than cure. There needs to be a mindset change, to recognise the importance of investing in infrastructure resilience and early warning systems. For example, the Chulalongkorn Centenary Park in Bangkok is specifically designed to collect, treat, and hold water, thereby reducing flood risk in urban areas. It obviously is going to cost more to put in all these measures, but they help to protect Bangkok, as a highly built-up city, from floods. In Singapore, a network of hazardous materials sensors, known as project ‘eNose’, is progressively being deployed at various strategic locations across the city-state, to promptly warn the affected populace of any release of harmful chemical vapours into the environment.
13. In April 2022, the ACDM had endorsed a Concept Note for ‘Strengthening the ASEAN Multi-Hazard End to End Early Warning System for Natural Disasters’. This project aims to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the state of ASEAN’s early warning systems, and will be useful for ASEAN countries to identify areas of improvement.
14. The second area of focus could be on strengthening partnerships. Given the complex nature of disasters, we cannot afford to work in silos. ASEAN should collaborate with partners in building disaster resilience.
15. Besides Government-to-Government cooperation, non-governmental organisations, civil society, and the business community can play key roles in disaster management. An example in fact is infrastructure resilience, which can mitigate the impact of natural disasters. Building infrastructure resilience can be expensive. However, governments can help by sharing the costs of incorporating resilience elements in infrastructure projects, with the private sector. The private sector has an incentive to participate as incorporating resilience elements better protects their infrastructure investments as well as their businesses from the adverse effects of natural disasters.
16. On this, I am glad to note that the ASEAN business community has been conducting a series of dialogues to encourage the private sector to factor climate considerations in their investment decisions.
Partnership with Humanitarian Organisations
17. The ACDM has also established partnerships with humanitarian organisations such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). In May 2022, ASEAN and the IFRC signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Strengthening Community Resilience in ASEAN. This reaffirmed the close cooperation between both parties in disaster management and acknowledged the mutual supportive roles in building a resilient ASEAN community. This is just one of many fine examples on the ongoing partnerships that the ACDM has put in place to enhance ASEAN’s disaster resilience, response and recovery efforts. I deeply appreciate the support given by all of ASEAN’s partners.
18. A third area of focus could be to promote innovation in disaster management.
19. For example, developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics have the potential to enhance our effectiveness in disaster management. AI technologies may be able to better predict the occurrences of disasters, providing responders with a longer lead time for preparation and evacuation. Scientific research may lead to the development of new building materials and techniques that are better able to withstand the impact of disasters.
20. In recent years, the ACDM has been actively promoting greater application of science and technology in the field of disaster management. For instance, in the last year, the Vietnam Disaster Management Authority and the AHA Centre co-organised the ‘AHAckathon’, aimed at promoting innovations to address challenges in humanitarian logistics in the ASEAN region. Participating youths generated refreshing, out-of-the-box ideas and perspectives in disaster management.
21. Let me conclude my remarks. Natural disasters will occur more frequently, and will be more severe. We must collectively try to mitigate their catastrophic and tragic effects. The SPDDM is a useful platform for this purpose, providing the opportunity for Government officials, international experts, humanitarian practitioners, members of the academia as well as leaders from the private sector, to work together to develop disaster management and risk reduction capabilities.
22. I would like to express my appreciation to the organisers, speakers, moderators, partners, and all of you for taking the time to participate in SPDDM 2022. I would also like to thank Thailand, the Chair of the ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management, for their leadership towards advancing disaster management in ASEAN this year. I wish everyone a fruitful dialogue, and a very enjoyable time in Singapore for all of our guests.
23. Thank you.