Asia Pacific: Disaster needs a science policy - Opinion

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Asia & the Pacific Policy Society Policy Forum

By Rajib Shaw

When it comes to disaster risk reduction, history has shown that a strong science policy framework is a must. There are still very few countries in the Asia Pacific region that invest in scientific innovations for disaster risk reduction, leaving the region ill-prepared for large-scale natural disasters, Rajib Shaw writes.


People have coped with large-scale natural disasters for centuries, and the advance of science and technology has seen different countries use it for disaster risk reduction in different ways.

However, to ensure sound policy in the future, a systematic approach with a science policy framework is necessary, one that cohesively combines different sectors at all levels, and effectively links national to local government.

A quick review of the last 25 years of disaster risk reduction clearly indicates that it has evolved over time. Some of the new developments and trends include awareness of the need for pre-disaster preparedness – as opposed to the traditional focus on post-disaster response – a focus on local government and communities, rather than national government, and emphasising multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder approaches, not just an engineering and government focus.

This evolution is from bitter experiences of major disasters over the years, including the 1995 Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake (Kobe earthquake, as its popularly known) in Japan, the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, Myanmar’s Cyclone Nargis, China’s Wenchuan Earthquake in 2008, and the East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, to name a few. The Asia-Pacific region bears the brunt of these disasters due to its population, asset concentration – high population and the concentration of physical and social assets – and the different types of vulnerability and exposures.

Science and technology have always played an important role in the evolution of any subject, and disaster risk reduction is no exception. The United Nations International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (UN IDNDR: 1990-1999), raised significant awareness of disaster issues. It started within a science framework, after a proposal by Dr Frank Press, then-president of America’s National Science Foundation (NSF), through his address to the International Conference of Earthquake Engineering. After that, the Science and Technology Committee (STC) played advocacy roles in the IDNDR implementation, which was later upgraded and replaced by STAG (Science and Technology Advisory Group).

In 2015, the United Nations member states agreed on a 15-year (2015-2030) framework – the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) — which will direct the future pathway of disaster risk reduction approaches, in alignment with the broader Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SFDRR has seven specific goals: to reduce global disaster mortality, reduce the number of affected people, reduce direct disaster economic loss, reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure, increase the number of countries with disaster risk reduction strategies, enhance international cooperation and increase access to multi-hazard early warning systems, risk information and assessment.

There are four key targets to achieve these goals: understanding disaster risk, strengthening disaster risk governance, investing in risk reduction, enhancing disaster preparedness for collective responses, and to “build back better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

While the science, technology and academic communities are showing increasing interest in becoming part of the national and/or regional process of disaster risk reduction, challenges remain in bringing science into decision-making or policy-making at the national level, and implementation at the local level.

There are still very few countries in the Asia Pacific region that invest in scientific innovations for disaster risk reduction, or make policy decisions with scientific validation.

Three specific things are needed to promote science technology’s role in future disaster risk reduction: investment in science and technology through the establishment of and/or strengthening of national science governance; encouraging science-based decision-making through establishing and/or strengthening the science advisory group at the national as well as local level; and promoting science and technology to people and communities by filtering up local and indigenous knowledge and practice through scientific validation.

A systemic approach through a science policy interface is required, which cross-cuts different sectors horizontally, and also links the governance from national to local level. Higher education also plays an important role in this process. It is important to develop trained professionals in the field of disaster risk reduction, and universities should be encouraged to start innovative multi disciplinary higher education courses as formal education, and offer professional training in disaster risk reduction.

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