World Politics Review

By Catherine Cheney

Nearly two weeks of continuous rain have caused floods to sweep through Manila as well as nearby areas, killing at least 23 people so far and affecting nearly 2 million.  The deadly floods in the Philippine capital are the latest in a series of flooding-related disasters to strike the region. Last month, the heaviest rainfall to hit Beijing, China, in six decades forced the evacuation of 650,000 people from their homes, while three months of heavy rains in Bangkok, Thailand, last year claimed at least 500 lives. According to Edward Blakely, honorary professor of urban policy at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Center and a disaster-recovery expert who led recovery management for New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, the devastation caused by these floods results not only from the amount of rainfall, but also from a lack of planning, coordination and enforcement in terms of urbanization. “These floods are the result of overbuilding and extending the city into former farm and marsh areas,” Blakely told Trend Lines. “There is an issue here of responsible building,” he added, explaining that developers “were building on very fragile marshlands, on creeks and so on, just covering them up with a bit of cement and hoping for the best.” Blakely pointed out that over the past three months, floods have devastated three major capital cities: Taipei, Beijing and Manila. He explained that in such cases, disasters have increasingly political implications, making preparedness and response even more necessary. “The death toll in Asia is always so huge in comparison to other places because of the dense population and the size of the population in urban areas,” he said. “So this is a real issue for governments in those countries, because they affect such a large portion of their population.” According to Blakely, these governments should have taken more precautions not to build in places that are known to be vulnerable to flooding, but because governments often benefit from these projects, “they are running the risks on lands where they clearly should not develop.” Blakely noted that infrastructure is overstretched in many cities, even as natural disasters are happening more and more frequently. “We are urbanizing so fast,” he said. “We are paying too little attention to the past — and the consequences.” He said some cities, like Manila, might have to abandon entire neighborhoods so that the larger city can avoid the “boom, sprawl and bust” cycle that has doomed cities in the past. Blakely said that at some point, a city can reach a point of “catastrophic failure,” where the combination of a natural disaster and a lack of planning creates a disaster so devastating that some significant portion of the city cannot be rebuilt. He called Manila "a likely suspect" for that kind of event. While noting the key actors in the field of disaster preparedness and response — the World Bank’s Disaster Risk Management, the United Nations Human Settlements Program and a few key regional actors, including Australia — Blakely said there must be stronger mechanisms and agreements in place, particularly because these disasters and their chain events "affect entire ecosystems." Using international building codes as an example of successful coordination and enforcement, Blakely emphasized the importance of developing international settlement codes, with a list of lands that can and cannot be built on. “We need an ‘International Disaster Agency’ with regional branches for each continent,” Blakely said, to provide biannual disaster assessments and look at the causes and consequences of disasters in economic and social terms. Such an agency would also provide a clearinghouse for international disaster-response teams, “so the location and availability of pre-disaster and postdisaster experts is available.” Ideally, he said, there would be conferences and workshops on disaster resilience and postdisaster management, efforts that are currently “haphazard and run by for-profit groups.” And finally, Blakely said, the agency could “professionalize the field and help build a cadre of expertise” by publishing guides and manuals on disaster management. Asked whether the devastation in Manila might catalyze this kind of progress, Blakely said he hopes so but is not entirely optimistic. “We’ve learned from many disasters that people want things to go back just as they were,” he said, referring to Hurricane Katrina as one example. “But we have to learn from these disasters, and we have to work with nature rather than against it.”