The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Empowering Southeast Asia’s informal sector in times of disaster

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on March 20, 2013
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The recent Jakarta floods are yet another testament of the vulnerabilities faced by Southeast Asia’s megacities in recent years. Storms and deluges have destroyed infrastructure and property in centres of economic activity while disrupting the livelihoods of many of their inhabitants.

Such disasters pose a threat to the economies of Southeast Asia and to ASEAN-level initiatives to promote growth, given the heavy economic losses. Damage from the 2011 floods around Bangkok resulted in only 0.1 per cent annual growth for Thailand, while the recent Jakarta floods, according to Indonesia’s central bank, could potentially raise inflation by about 0.2 per cent.

The attention given to the economic ramifications of disasters has, however, not extended to the informal sector. Not only are people from the informal sector among the worst affected by floods, they also play an important role in supporting economic development. They form an integral element of the economies of those cities by making up 50–60 per cent of the workforce in many Southeast Asian cities and provide a range of products and services that support urban economies including affordable food and transportation. Megacities therefore face the challenge of mitigating urban disaster risks more generally and the vulnerabilities faced by the informal sector and the urban poor more specifically.

There are three primary challenges worth noting. Firstly, funding is a major setback, particularly with latest estimates suggesting that the Asia Pacific would need around US$40 billion per year up until 2050 for climate change adaptation (CCA) measures.

Secondly, while most plans currently provide for immediate disaster relief, not enough support is given to longer-term rehabilitation efforts. This is exacerbated by the fact that floods may take a considerable amount of time to subside. In the case of the floods in Thailand in July 2011 the waters did not fully subside until January 2012.

Thirdly, despite the establishment of comprehensive national policies, there are bureaucratic delays, such as at middle management levels of the civil service, which play an important role in implementing policies, but have perhaps not yet been accustomed to changes in the approaches of addressing long-standing issues related to poverty.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) play an important role in providing solutions and taking up tasks that national or local governments have not been able to implement. By first gaining the trust of poor communities, CSOs have been able to integrate the needs of the poor – namely healthcare, housing and employment – into CCA programmes. In Manila and Jakarta, CSOs have supported community recycling projects that provide waste-pickers with jobs and simultaneously address improper waste disposal that clogs drainage systems and in turn, increases the impact of flooding.

Effective mitigation of disasters in Southeast Asia’s megacities therefore requires not only better protection, but also empowerment of citizens involved in the urban informal sector. The failure to adopt a well-coordinated combination of technical, socio-economic and political capabilities will not only increase urban vulnerabilities but also result in lost opportunities to build national economies and, in turn, an economically strong Southeast Asia.

*A longer version of this blog post can be found  here.

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