Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Jul 20, 2020
When COVID19 and natural hazards collide: Building resilient infrastructure in South Asia in the face of multiple crises 

Almost overnight, COVID-19 shattered the global economy. What started as a biological event quickly transformed into an environmental, social, and economic one as well. And South Asia, known for its regularly occurring natural disasters, was particularly impacted by this transformation. The consequences of these converging disasters became apparent when super-cyclone Amphan and cyclone Nargis hit land, and when locust swarms ravaged farmland in India and Bangladesh amidst the pandemic.

But Bangladesh, India, and other countries in South Asia are no strangers to extremes. They have state-of-the-art hydro-meteorological systems, risk warning capabilities, cyclone shelters, and strengthened buildings; all measures recommended in the Global Commission on Adaptation’s “Adapt Now” report. Decades of investing in preparedness measures resulted in a death toll only in the dozens, whereas 50 years ago cyclone Bhola killed 300,000 people.

Nevertheless, extensive disaster management did not prepare authorities for a unique challenge: social distancing in cyclone shelter facilities. During Cyclone Amphan, coastal communities faced a daunting choice of either braving the cyclone or risking COVID-19 infection in shelters. Considering 6 million+ evacuees, increasing space requirements from 3.5 square meters per person to 5 square meters for social distancing is extraordinarily challenging.

During Cyclone Amphan, coastal communities faced a daunting choice of either braving the cyclone or risking COVID-19 infection in shelters

The intersection of these events revealed challenges for other infrastructures as well. For example, in Kolkata, during cyclone Amphan, hospitals already at capacity from COVID-19 also faced a second wave of disruption. With internet connection and cell phone services down, hospitals struggled to contact patients’ families, and test reporting was delayed by days. In Mumbai, cyclone Nisarga also damaged roads and power lines, cutting off medical supplies to remote villages and districts. Large parts of Maharashtra are now showing an impending arrival of heatwaves that will likely increase hospitalizations.

With increasing weather extremes from climate change bearing down, the region should be prepared to confront converging disasters. Institutions and infrastructure related to natural disasters, climate, health, and technology need to be linked up for rapid mobilization. But gaps remain in operationalizing this coherence. While the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction calls for epidemics, pandemics, and biological hazards to be part of a comprehensive approach to address multiple hazards, integrating biological hazards into the disaster management cycles has yet to be realized.

Thus, there are some key opportunities to be explored to build resilience.

First, a clear understanding of the biological-natural disaster hazard nexus and their collective impacts have not been established. Traditional disaster risk assessments for public infrastructure projects have just recently started to incorporate climate change and are yet to incorporate pandemics and biological hazards with the traditional ones.

While COVID-19 has different risk transmission pathways compared to traditional physical hazards, the communities and populations that are the most vulnerable to natural hazards and climate change are also those with high vulnerability to the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. So, a new and integrated approach for risk analysis is crucial to building resilient infrastructures that they rely upon daily.

Both disaster risk management and epidemiology have established systems of risk analytics and modelling techniques to project death and damage estimates and to find the root causal variables related to risk reduction measures. Both disciplines also use the next generation of advanced geospatial techniques and technological innovations to provide more accurate indicators and early warnings.  The common elements in risk analytics can be integrated to construct comprehensive scenarios for informed investments decisions including:

  • The presence of common, causal root factors to construct different risk expressions;
  • Applying the disaster risk formula and its components to understanding social risk construction associated with the pandemic (i.e., risk = hazard * exposure * vulnerability), and subsequent modelling of the projected short, medium and long term impacts;
  • Understanding feedback loops between hazard, exposure, and vulnerability in constructing different risk contexts for building critical infrastructure;
  • Using risk indexing and risk management categories in understanding needs for resilient infrastructure investments; and
  • Applying early warning systems to reduce short-term risk conditions for existing infrastructure.

To demonstrate the operationalizing of this new and integrated risk matrix, the multi-hazard average annual loss risk (AAL) metric provides countries with consistent and comparable estimates of the situation the in Asia-Pacific region. While the AAL metric supports countries in making risk-informed decisions in public investments and captures the ‘riskscape’- the comprehensive set of economic and social exposure and vulnerabilities from natural disasters, it does not yet include analysis of pandemics.

The AAL calculates the average loss and damage per year from natural hazards, including drought, floods, cyclones, and tsunamis with different hazard return periods. However, the intersection of COVID-19 pandemic with the cyclones and floods demonstrates that future losses will be underestimated if biological hazards are not considered in the models. These hazards, if classified with a return rate period and integrated into the current AAL analysis, can support the next generation of resilient investments.

Second, while quantifying risk is the critical first step in developing any strategy for investing in critical infrastructures- the next is to build back better. For example, future investments in cyclone shelters must now consider space requirements for social distancing. So how do we develop financing strategies that support an integrated approach?

By now it is increasingly clear that the demarcation between hazards is at best, arbitrary. The pandemic provides unprecedented opportunities to strengthen linkages between DRR financing mechanisms and pandemic financing mechanisms. For example, disaster management relies on national disaster funds, contingent credit lines, insurance products, and regional risk pools such as the Pacific Catastrophe Risk Insurance, the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk insurance facility, and others. Some of these have already been used to respond to COVID-19.

By now it is increasingly clear that the demarcation between hazards is at best, arbitrary. The pandemic provides unprecedented opportunities to strengthen linkages between DRR financing mechanisms and pandemic financing mechanisms

In parallel, existing financial relief systems are also available for pandemics. These include the IMF- Catastrophe Containment and Relief Fund which extends catastrophe debt relief to both health emergencies and natural disasters and the World Bank Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility. Using the integrated risk analytics as a basis for evidence-based financing, the linkages between national and global funding mechanisms could be strengthened for critical infrastructure to ‘build back better’.

Finally, regional, and sub-regional cooperation in financing, trade, and infrastructure investment must be prioritized along with disaster risk reduction. While preemptive investing in efficient and sustainable infrastructures will ensure South Asia’s prosperity, it will also require collaborative approaches from regional governments, multilateral development banks, and the private sector. Here, ESCAP has been at the forefront of deepening regional cooperation in South Asia, especially through the Asia Pacific Disaster Resilience Network, bringing together policymakers from different line ministries to discuss rebuilding post-COVID-19 and taking advantage of new technologies to ensure that resilient infrastructure systems leave no one behind.

In the end, reimagining regional responses should always prioritize people first. The Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Framework, and the Bangkok Principles are some of the most potent tools that can support better infrastructure management to benefit all communities if the region internalizes and operationalizes the lessons from the current crisis.

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Madhurima Sarkar-Swaisgood

Madhurima Sarkar-Swaisgood

Madhurima Swaisgood Economic Affairs Officer ESCAP

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