The impact of natural disasters, caused by multiple geophysical hazards, is greater in Asia than on any other continent. This is true both in megacities and rural areas—particularly near coasts, unstable mountain slopes, volcanoes, and deserts.
The casualties and economic losses are especially large where rapidly growing populations are concentrated. As the forthcoming U.N. Climate Change Summit in Qatar will be reminded, these disasters and the loss of agricultural production are exacerbated by weather extremes, sea level rises and other effects associated with climate change.
To be sure, major geophysical events have also struck in countries at higher latitudes; Hurricane Sandy devastated farms in Haiti, just recovering from the 2010 earthquake. The economic and social consequences of such disasters are generally worse in less developed countries, especially when they follow each other so closely that recovery is incomplete.
The Qatar Summit will be negotiating levels of funding for adaptation against climate change. This should include dealing with natural disasters before and during, and afterwards in post-disaster recovery.
Effective and rapid use of such funds should be for developments in social uses of communications and internet technologies by individuals and organizations. This will reduce impacts of disasters through community involvement and improve real-time management.
Through two-way communication, assistance can be provided more rapidly and effectively between communities and central organizations, including government. The latter can now provide short term and on-going warnings for certain types of hazards that are highly effective in averting the impacts of some natural disasters.
Warnings are also improving in reliability and practical relevance as a result of advances in underpinning science and technology. Forecasts and advisory information are communicated to people in affected areas, through public broadcasts, specific radio messages (e.g. to fishermen), and increasingly also through internet and social media. Many countries are now strengthening the structures that support such communication systems.
However, for some hazards, such as earthquakes and volcanoes, that cannot yet be predicted, effective advice can be provided which saves many lives, such as with improved warning procedures following the Asian tsunamis in 2004. Social media are equally important in these situations.
However, technology is not in itself sufficient: accurate real-time forecasting of wind, waves, and flooding etc are possible, for example, resulting from satellite observations and computer predictions several days ahead of the tracks of tropical cyclones—as with Nagi which devastated Burma in 2010. However, in this case, thousands of casualties occurred in the poorest remote Burmese communities, because there were no telecommunications providing warnings based on these predictions.
The Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards in Manila is pioneering two-way use of mobile phones during the course of multiple disaster events that occur in the Philippines, so that the expert centers receive informal observations from individuals. For example, data about water levels in streets, and damage that is occurring as a result of flooding is particularly valuable in large urban areas.
Even gauge data, supported by remote sensing from aircraft or satellites plus the most detailed, best-in-class flood computer models, for example from Delft University of Technology, require updates of water depth and estimations of the direction and strength of water currents as they are affected by obstructions caused by collapsing buildings and floating trees, and vehicles etc.
With this additional, but informal, data being contributed throughout urban areas, computer predictions at expert centers can be corrected and communicated to affected communities. During the post-disaster recovery phase, input from local communities is equally vital. This can help with the allocation of funds and clear advice about better protection for the future.
Governmental agencies are increasingly aware that even when official communications in affected areas formally exist, informal information may be more timely. Flooding along rivers that cross borders sometimes can be more quickly conveyed by mobile phone communications between communities than by formal channels for cross border data exchange, which are often still too slow and sometimes non-existent.
Through the Internet, communities, such as q-cumber in Italy, can also collaborate with government in publicizing unregulated sources of pollution, or destruction of biodiversity. This role can be critical for preserving environmental safeguards, such as sand dunes that protect coastal communities against storms and tsunamis, which were wantonly removed along the Sri Lanka coast before 2004 and is happening now in Vietnam.
Clearly, socialization of environmental technology throughout Asia and elsewhere will save many lives and can have enormous benefits. This transformation will probably happen anyway, but governments need to be brave to make it happen sooner.