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COVID-19 compounding long-term drought effects in southeast Asia

  • COVID-19 compounding long-term drought effects in southeast Asia

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United Nations Escap
The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) is the regional development arm of the United Nations for the Asia-Pacific region.


A new report released by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat is urging Southeast Asian governments to amplify their COVID-19 stimulus packages with much-needed investments in climate action and adaptation, in order to support vulnerable populations exposed to both pandemics and slow-onset disasters.

The second edition of Ready for the Dry Years: Building Resilience to Drought in South-East Asia uncovers deep impacts across the region that have persisted after drought conditions have ceased and accumulated over time, including disruption to livelihoods and food security, as well as increased environmental hazards such as forest fires and haze. The report finds that economies are now facing an unprecedented threat to macroeconomic stability and new vulnerabilities are emerging, as the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 and the climate crisis converge.

Southeast Asia has long endured severe droughts; over the past five years, the region has experienced the strongest droughts recorded in decades with no ASEAN Member State spared. During the peak, over 70 per cent of the land area was affected and nearly 60 per cent of the region’s population were exposed.

“The ever-present threat of drought, with devastating impacts across the Southeast Asia region, is a hallmark of the climate crisis. Through our strengthened engagement and strategic partnership, both ESCAP and ASEAN can mobilize rapid and large-scale collaboration amongst Member States, development partners, stakeholders and relevant sectoral bodies to tackle a common and shared transboundary challenge,” said United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP Ms. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana.

“ASEAN must shift towards a more responsive and adaptive drought risk management,” said Secretary-General of ASEAN Dato Lim Jock Hoi. “The development of drought management policies and plans at the national level must focus on drought prevention, mitigation, vulnerability reduction, planning and preparedness, instead of dealing with or responding to aftermath losses and damages.”

About 15 to 25 per cent of the region’s population live in drought hotspots, where high drought exposure overlaps with socioeconomic vulnerability and land degradation. As the climate warms, drought severity is expected to increase. However, compared to other disasters, droughts are more predictable and tend to reoccur in the region once every five years.

Thus, the report calls for a more proactive approach and details policy actions along three tracks: reduce and prevent; prepare and respond; and restore and recover. The proposed actions cover a wide range of policy areas, from the management of food, water and energy systems, to the implementation of early warning systems and drought risk financing.

“As slow onset disasters are often overlooked, it is now time to put the spotlight to drought by policymakers, the media and stakeholders. As such, more attention in the form of sound mitigation and adaptation plans will be necessary,” said Administrator of the Office of Civil Defense of the Republic of the Philippines, Under-Secretary Ricardo Jalad, who also serves as the representative of the Chair of the 8th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Disaster Management.

The report’s policy recommendations also provided the evidence base for the ASEAN Declaration on the Strengthening of Adaptation to Drought, which was adopted at the recently concluded 37th ASEAN Summit on 13 November. The Declaration represents a paradigm shift towards more long term and adaptive drought risk management and governance, and will be subsequently translated into a Regional Plan of Action.

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