Water articles are written by ADB staff and external contributors on various water issues, reforms, and good practices.

Making Disasters Less Disastrous
October 2008

By Hubert Jenny Senior Urban Development Specialist The Asia-Pacific has had the lion's share of water-related disasters and its impacts over the last decades—roughly 41% of the world's total floods, 91% of the total number of people killed from water disasters, and economic damages that totaled $446 billion in 1991–2001. Does this mean the region is doomed to suffer defenselessly through more of these disasters? Not at all. Most water-related natural disasters can be anticipated. Prevention remains the best way of minimizing their adverse impacts but appropriate and well-timed disaster management can do the trick just as well. But just how much planning and financing should go into disaster management? ANTICIPATING RISKS When a threat is anticipated, it can be avoided or, at the very least, its negative impacts curtailed. For water-related disasters, countries and communities can do this by formulating a disaster and risk management strategy that combines both structural and non-structural interventions, allows the proper allocation of resources, and is anchored on a clear institutional framework. Countries draw disaster management plans by looking at an inventory of disasters per geographic area and combining that with an assessment of the severity of the disaster and its impacts on the communities and on local economic development. A systemic approach to risk management shows that risk is related to the probability of its occurrence, which translates to the formula Risk = Impact x Probability of Occurrence This is useful in assessing which mitigation measures should be funded and implemented first. For instance, a tsunami is a high impact disaster with a low probability of occurrence, whereas a typhoon is of low to medium/high impact with a high probability of occurrence in some areas. The higher the risk, the more attention is needed from the various levels of government to implement non-structural measures, such as early warning systems, awareness programs to prepare communities living in disaster prone areas, wetlands conservation or restoration, and more finance structural works, such as retrofitting buildings to withstand disasters, flood embankments, etc. Unfortunately, most national and local governments have risk management plans that only do half the job, anchored as they are on mostly structural works. This often leaves the most vulnerable part of the population—the poor—at risk.
1 From The Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response, Standard 1 on water supply: access to water and available quantities. The Author has added indications on concentration required during normal operation. 2 Presentation to ADB on “Regional Economic Development Risk Assessment and Management: Framework and Case Study on Risk Management for two Australian Regions,” 9 May 2006.

WHEN DISASTER STRIKES Once disaster hits, it's not uncommon to see existing infrastructures and institutions overwhelmed by the present demands of dealing with the catastrophe, much less the future demands of getting everything devastated back on track. Communities already weakened by the disaster become more vulnerable—the often displaced survivors, thankfully numbering more than the injured and killed, end up having to rely on the government to cope with the aftermath. But national and local government institutions, even when aided by private and civil society groups, find their technical, financial, and institutional capacities constrained by the competing responsibilities of search and rescue operations, firefighting, medical care, and more. The water and sanitation scene faces its own constraints as water service providers sometimes find themselves unable to do anything except temporarily suspend operations in the wake of the disaster. When threatened with waterborne diseases and loss of hygiene, the first priority of national and local government is to provide bottled water, water treatment systems and onsite sanitation. Given the high logistic costs and the long time it takes to provide such services, these count as temporary and inadequate answers. To manage the disaster's aftermath more smartly, national and local governments should instead focus on quickly restoring minimum basic services for water supply and sanitation, combining them with the provision of shelters to vulnerable communities. Basic indicators 1 for water and sanitation during disasters exist and should be used as guide to quickly restore the water and sanitation services: Water collection points should be maintained so that adequate amounts of water are available Recommended allowable distance between houses and water collection points: 500 meters (instead of 150 meters) Water supply in health centers: 50 liters per patient per day (instead of 100 to 1,000 liters per bed per day) Average amount of water for drinking, cooking, and personal and domestic hygiene (including sanitation): 15 liters per person per day (instead of 60 to 150 liters)

Water quality for new sources of water that can be used, in a disaster and emergency situation No more than 10 fecal coliforms per 100 ml (instead of zero) Concentration of residual chlorine in piped water should be 0.3 mg/l and turbidity less than 5 Nephelometric Turbidity Units or NTUs (instead of 0.1 mg/l and 0 NTU respectively) Total dissolved solids should not exceed 1,000 mg/l (instead of 500 mg/l) GETTING BACK ON TRACK According to Professor Brian Roberts 2 of the Centre for Developing Cities at the University of Canberra, “Most risk management plans are concerned with dealing with the immediate impacts of disaster, without much thought given to post-disaster economic recovery before events happen. There is a very poor understanding of risk management in public agencies, which as a result, tend to take a very conservative approach to risk management, suppressing opportunities for inventiveness, innovation and commercialisation of ideas and solutions to address risk problems.” The quick restoration of water and sanitation services, even partial, is critical to lowering the impact of disaster on communities. Next on the list should be to harness the communities' participation in constructing shelters and providing other needed basic services. Before the next disaster strikes, the communities and local authorities should take the time to redefine the master plan, increase coverage for basic services, strengthen the water and sanitation sector, and set-up or update their risk management plans, which should have the dual aims of improving mitigation measures and structural works to minimize the impact of future disasters and reducing the vulnerability of the communities. A disaster will always highlight whatever deficiencies and the vulnerabilities exist in the water supply and sanitation systems (as well as other services), but this does not mean solutions to mitigate these deficiencies and vulnerabilities cannot be planned for way in advance.

*This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in October 2008: