Nature’s Displaced

Much of Southeast Asia is susceptible to nature’s calamities. Many of the region’s economies are still in the developing stages. This means that every occurrence of climate adversity is a step back in development and a strain on resources. Every natural disaster displaces thousands of people who would then need temporary shelter. Their homes need to be rebuilt and their lost means of survival need to be regained. Many victims have to look for alternative jobs, especially if they have had an agricultural livelihood.

Precaution and preparedness are lacking in the countries most prone to environmental dangers. History should have taught them otherwise, but sometimes limited resources cripple affected states’ capacity to meet the demands of a crisis. Knowing that disaster is bound to strike, governments often fail to give potential victims sufficient warning; a self-defeating course of action that worsens the aftermath. Knowing that the inevitable will happen, countries have failed to prepare their citizens for the worst. As a result, more lives are lost; more homes are lost; more jobs are lost. More people are displaced temporarily or permanently.

Tropical storm Usman hit the Philippines on 25 December 2018. At least 17,000 people were displaced and at least 61 lives were lost. Following this disaster, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit Mindanao, displacing coastal populations to the inland. On the average, Filipinos experience twenty cyclones a year. They are also affected by landslides and floods. The country has a national disaster monitoring agency but more can be done pre- and post-disaster. More needs to be done to help displaced populations, especially given the high frequency of natural calamities.

Nature’s wrath is also dampening Indonesian lives. The series of earthquakes in July 2018, followed by the September quake in Palu and the December series of tsunamis, have collectively destroyed substantial capital and infrastructure, in addition to thousands of lives. Because the Anak Krakatau volcanic eruption did not trigger seismic monitors significantly, Indonesia’s geophysics agency sent out an initial message of ‘no tsunami’. Clearly, more research is required on the causes of a tsunami, not only in Indonesia but also in other disaster-prone parts of the globe, such as the Philippines and the United States. Research is one way of preparing for the worst.

The Widodo government has decided to take positive measures to adapt to future calamities. Large funds have been pledged for rehabilitation, reconstruction and disaster response. There has been an acknowledgement of the need to be prepared, responsive, alert, and resilient. Insuring state assets against disaster via ‘catastrophe bonds’ is one of the ways in which the government plans to improve financial preparedness. Another promised initiative is the inclusion of disaster preparedness in the national school curriculum. While such plans are commendable, successful implementation will depend on the outcome of April’s elections.

Malaysia, like Singapore, is protected from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Both countries have also been freed from the touch of tornadoes. However, ripple effects from disasters in neighbouring Indonesia have been felt in both countries. Moreover, Malaysia has had its fair share of natural mishaps. The 2015 fatal Kinabalu quake, landslides, hillslope collapses and sinkholes are some unfortunate occurrences in the country. Fortunately, they have not caused massive human displacement, relative to other Southeast Asian countries.

According to the ASEAN coordinating centre for humanitarian assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre), about half a million people have been displaced and more than five million people have been affected by floods, quakes, tropical storms and a dam collapse on a tributary of the Mekong river, in countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Thailand and Cambodia.

Most of Southeast Asia needs to include climate resilience in domestic policies. Being prepared for large-scale human displacement is a national necessity. People need to have confidence in their government that they will be taken care of. If this confidence is compromised, it is a matter of time before they decide to make a transition to urban areas, and eventually even cross borders to earn a livelihood. In such a scenario, greener pastures may prove to be not as green as they appear.

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