November, 14 2013 10:05:49

Typhoon highlights need for disaster planning

by Thu Huong Le

The typhoon that struck the Philippines several days ago once again reminds us of the vulnerability of humans against nature.

Considered one of the strongest storms making landfall on record in the world, it crushed houses, roads, airports, basic infrastructure and everything in its way with winds of at least 225km per hour.

Photographs of the dead lying and desperate survivors appealing for help are truly heartrending.

While our heartfelt condolences are with the hundreds of thousands of dead and missing, it's also time for Vietnamese officials to re-examine our own cities' capabilities of dealing with such a disaster even if there's only a slightest possibility of it befalling us.

No doubt we were well-prepared for storm Haiyan, with prompt, massive evacuations of more than 500,000 people in central areas, close monitoring of the storm's path and comprehensive information available especially for those living in high-risk areas and working at sea.

Experts suggested that even a weaker storm could cause havoc in Tacloban, a city of about 220,000 people, due to poverty and shoddy construction.

For us, cities like Ha Noi did not suffer a serious blow as Haiyan was weakened by the time it hit northern Viet Nam.

But days before landfall in Ha Noi, widespread worry about the situation was a stark reminder of the historic flooding in 2008 that claimed 18 lives in the capital.

Experts have long warned that Ha Noi lacks a long-term flood prevention plan. Even downtown, streets end up underwater due to torrential rain in the past several months.

In June this year, 20 new flood areas appeared when tropical storm Bebinca dropped 96mm of rain, forcing the city to install new drainage systems. Rains throughout the year have created many new and unmapped flood areas.

In August, heavy rains flooded many downtown streets, with many black spots 40-50cm deep. That month was the second time the city had to open its floodgates to save Ha Noi since the historic flood in 2008.

Back in 2006, the city People's Committee approved a seven-year project worth more than VND6 trillion (US$370 million) to improve the drainage system.

Down south, in HCM City, the rising tide has become part of daily life, disrupting people's lives and causing serious economic consequences.

Last month, experts at the Viet Nam Urban Forum in central Da Nang City invoked the need to develop more climate-resilient cities and foster policies to limit the impact of extreme weather on urban communities.

With 30 per cent of the population living in urban areas, urban planning must take into account the importance of building up the resilience of people living and working in these areas, according to Diane Archer, researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

This includes tasks such as building climate-resilient housing, enhancing neighbourhood activities and promoting social capital to build community resilience, improving infrastructure and developing policies to regulate buildings in hazard-prone areas.

Cities across the world are also taking notice of the need to become more resilient.

During my recent interview tour in the south-central Chinese Province of Hunan, we were introduced to the concept of the "dual-oriented society", which refers to urban planning that is both resource-saving and environmentally-friendly.

The Changsha-Zhuzhou-Xiangtan National Pilot Zone was introduced in 2007 as a pilot area for implementing a dual-oriented society in three cities in Hunan Province.

It requires vast changes in all areas of urban planning to conserve resources, innovate urban-rural linkages and improve urban infrastructure construction.

At the micro-level, they even encourage people to ride public bicycles, with bike rental systems set up in several cities. Residents can ride the bikes for an extremely low cost.

While each city must cope with its own challenges in becoming more resilient, all are facing the pressure of rising urban populations, economic uncertainties, rapid migration and infrastructure development.

But the situation in the Philippines once again reminds us that cities need to act long before disaster takes its toll. — VNS

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