Typhoon Haiyun has killed more than 4,400 people in the Philippines and displaced at least 900,000. Around 12 million Filipinos have been affected by the consequences of the storm, which is one of the deadliest coastal disasters on record.
Given the scale and frequency of recent coastal disasters—Typhoon Haiyun, Hurricanes Sandy, Katrina, and Rita, the Fukushima and Indian Ocean Tsunamis—it is time to develop a global strategy for protecting coastal populations. There should be two elements to this strategy: a short-run emergency response and investments in long-term global adaptation.
As the global emergency response to Typhoon Haiyun unfolds, it is clear that the current approach is inadequate. In the aftermath of an emergency, saving lives and providing immediate assistance to survivors are of paramount importance. The effectiveness and speed of response depends on the “three Ts”: telecommunications, transport, and tonnage handling. A country or region affected by the disaster, especially a developing economy such as the Philippines, is often too incapacitated to provide such vital logistical support to international relief efforts.
What is needed is a permanent global emergency relief agency that is well-equipped and capable of restoring these three essentials to any coastal disaster zone in the world. Such an agency must deploy the “commandos” of any international relief operation. Its personnel should be the first to arrive in a disaster zone, with the priority of repairing and reestablishing basic telecommunications. The agency should also have sufficient emergency engineering and other skills necessary to set up the immediate transport facilities necessary for relief operations. Finally, the agency should identify, coordinate, and where possible, fix and open the facilities—airports, landing sites, ports and others—necessary to handle the large tonnage of relief supplies needed in the disaster area.
Long-term adaptation is also necessary to address the increasing vulnerability of coastal populations to natural disasters, for several reasons.
First, coastal population densities across the globe are nearly three times those of inland areas, and they are increasing exponentially. Thus, as population grows, we are packing more people into our coastlines than ever before.
Second, many estuarine, coastal, and marine ecosystems naturally protect coastlines from storm surges, wind, flooding, erosion, and other storm impacts, but as coastal development and populations expand, these systems are disappearing rapidly. Their resulting loss and degradation due to human activities is intense and increasing, such that 50% of salt marshes, 35% of mangroves, 30% of coral reefs, and 29% of seagrasses are either lost or degraded worldwide. Such rapid deterioration of these systems is making coastlines more vulnerable.
Third, across all the cities worldwide, about 40 million people are exposed to a one-in-100-year extreme coastal flooding event, and by 2070, it will be 150 million people. Consequently, because of the growth of urban populations generally, and cities in coastal areas specifically, more and more cities are facing the growing risks of major storm events.
Finally, the most vulnerable populations are likely to be in the poorest countries, and thus the least able to afford the risks and damages posed by coastal storms and floods. Around 14% of the population, and 21% of urban dwellers in developing countries, live in low-elevation coastal zones that are exposed to these risks and damages.
Given these trends, there is an urgent need to develop a long-term strategy for reducing the vulnerability of coastal populations to storm events. Such a strategy should have two primary features: protecting coastlines and populations from the risks posed by damaging storms, and restoring valuable coastal systems, such as salt marshes, coral reefs, mangroves, seagrasses, and sand dunes, to help minimize damages in the first place.
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