Asia-Pacific’s Annus Horribilis
Image Credit: US Navy

Asia-Pacific’s Annus Horribilis


 ‘Losing our home was devastating – it’s hard to imagine everything you own fitting into a single suitcase.’

The comment was by Brisbane flood victim Benitta Harding, but could just as easily apply to a host of disasters that have hit the Asia-Pacific region already in 2011.

In a year that started with floods and cyclones in eastern Australia, before a major earthquake in New Zealand, and then Japan’s devastating temblor, tsunami, and now nuclear disaster, the region has barely had a chance to draw breath before the onset of the next crisis. But if regional governments are to try and mitigate the sometimes catastrophic effects of natural disasters, there are plenty of lessons that can be learned from what has happened so far this year.

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In Queensland, the December-January floods are estimated to have killed 35 people across the state, mainly from flash flooding in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley in the south-east. Brisbane suffered an estimated A$440 million worth of damage, with 20,000 houses inundated and many city businesses shut down for over a week in mid-January. The floods caused over three-quarters of Queensland to be declared a disaster zone, but also caused significant damage in the southern states of New South Wales and Victoria.

Just a few weeks later, as the country was still reeling from the worst flooding in half a century, Cyclone Yasi—a category 5 cyclone—made landfall in north Queensland. Australia’s second-costliest cyclone on record caused A$3.5 billion in damage, destroying large swathes of the region’s banana and sugar cane crops, and contributing to an estimated total damages bill from recent disasters of about A$9 billion.

For Brisbane resident and artist Harding though, the January floods almost completely submerged her house, destroying 20 years’ worth of artworks along with nearly all her belongings and those of her family’s. Nearly three months afterwards, she was still seeking assistance from charities after missing out on income-tested government aid.

‘Unless you’ve been through it, it’s really hard to comprehend,’ says Harding. ‘People come to our place and can’t comprehend that we don’t have running hot water, everything we own fits into the garage where we’re living, and a lot of the stuff there has been given to us.’

New Zealand was among the many countries that were quick to show their support, but a few weeks later the country would be left reeling from its own natural crisis.

On February 22, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck just 10 kilometres south-east of the centre of New Zealand’s second-largest city of Christchurch, killing 182 people, injuring 2,000, and leaving an estimated insurance bill of US$12 billion. The collapse of the six-story Canterbury TV building not only destroyed a TV station, but also killed a number of overseas students at an English language school, from Japan, China, and other countries.

Japan was among the many nations that dispatched assistance to the quake-stricken city, sending 66 search and rescue workers to Christchurch. The government would not have imagined that less than a month later it would need all available assistance for its own darkest hour.

Striking at 2.46 pm local time on Friday, March 11, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Tohoku region in the northeast of Japan, producing tsunami waves of up to 38 metres high and travelling up to 10 kilometres inland. The death toll has continued to rise, with more than 12,100 killed and 15,500 still missing as of April 4, while tens of thousands have been left homeless.

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