Slum dwellers, natural disasters in Asia and the Pacific underscore urgency for meaningful climate change agreement

Op-Ed by Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP

Published by: The Nation, Thailand, on 6 October 2009; Daily News, Thailand, on 13 October 2009.

Yesterday I met with a group of nearly 2,000 slum dwellers from Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea and Thailand. They came to the United Nations ESCAP Building to present me with a petition demanding that their right to shelter be respected.

This group represents just some of the 500 million slum dwellers who live in Asia and the Pacific and comprise 40 per cent of all who live in our region’s cities. If present trends continue in the next decade another 230 million people will be forced to live in conditions that lack access to adequate shelter, sanitation services and clean water.

The poor also often have no choice but to live on marginal lands, prone to flooding and landslides, in flimsy shelters and overcrowded settlements that expose them to other hazards. Of the thousands being reported dead or missing following last week’s series of disasters it should come as no surprise that many will be the poor and vulnerable from these types of settlements.

It is almost unprecedented for any region to experience so many disasters over such a short period of time. From the Philippines – which was hit by the one-two punch of Typhoon Ketsana and Typhoon Parma – and the flooding in Cambodia, Viet Nam, Laos and Thailand, to the earthquakes that rocked Indonesia and the tsunami that struck the Samoas and Tonga, the resulting loss of lives, casualties and destruction to property is heartbreaking.

These disasters are a brutal reminder that climate change will only increase the magnitude and frequency of weather-related disasters. Just this year India has been suffering its worst drought in nearly 40 years while in August, Taiwan Province of China, lost nearly 800 people to Typhoon Morakot. Asia and the Pacific overall has experienced over 80 per cent of the global casualties related to extreme weather events over the past seven years. We can only expect these types of disasters to get worse if meaningful action on climate change is not taken.

This connection between the plight of slum dwellers and the effects of climate change was readily apparent to another group yesterday. Just prior to the slum dwellers’ march hundreds of people concerned about climate change assembled in front of the United Nations ESCAP Building as negotiators continued to seek consensus on sealing a deal in Copenhagen that takes into account the concerns of developing countries. These marchers exchanged flags with members of the Four Regions Slum Network in a symbolic gesture meant to highlight the link between the two issues.

Watching these demonstrators only reinforced in me the urgency with which we need tackle these two inextricably linked challenges – overcoming poverty and combating climate change – facing most developing countries in Asia and the Pacific.

Failure to tackle one will undermine the efforts to deal with the other. So while not all of the natural disasters of the last week can be linked to climate change, they do underscore the need for an agreement that is both environmentally friendly and development oriented.

The world is at a historical turning point and must respond appropriately. Firstly, we must not roll back the gains made in the fight against climate change and erode the progress achieved through the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Consensus.

Secondly, the recent spate of calamities reminds us that Asia and the Pacific is the world’s disaster hot spot. A person living in the region is four times more likely to be affected by natural disasters than someone living in Africa, and 25 times more likely than someone living in Europe or North America. We need to improve our region’s disaster preparedness. Studies have shown that for every dollar invested in risks associated with disaster, four to seven dollars can be saved. Investing in disaster risk reduction and prevention measures is not only a moral imperative, it is financially smart.

The poor and vulnerable will always be the ones who suffer most in disasters. Only 1 in 5 people in our region have access to comprehensive health care coverage, posing an obstacle to recovery in the aftermath of such tragedies. But the poor are not just victims. They can also be agents of change if development is to be inclusive and sustainable. There are several wonderful examples in Asia and the Pacific that show when the poor are mobilized and given the opportunity and support they can change not only their own destiny, but also our cities, towns, and indeed, our societies, to become more sustainable and resilient.

The climate change talks must result in meaningful reductions in green house gas emissions and a range of adaptation measures that assist the poor and vulnerable. They must include provisions for disaster risk reduction and prevention measures that help reduce, and in some cases avoid, the tragic loss of life and property we are witnessing. Officials in Indonesia were quoted as saying they lacked the necessary heavy equipment to dig through the rubble and recover buried victims. As a result, the hopes of those missing loved ones diminishes with each passing day and the death toll rises.

It is clear that developing countries do not have the capacity or resources to respond to the challenges of climate change on their own. They will need access to new technologies, funding and skill development from the international community if they are to both mitigate and adapt to the challenges of climate change. Yet Mother Nature is not waiting for a bureaucratic resolution and she does not accept compromises. We must set aside our differences if an agreement is to be reached this December in Copenhagen that protects the ecosystems upon which all our lives depend. The march of our region’s slum dwellers is a vivid reminder of who will be the first to suffer if we do not act now.