Typhoons Ketsana and Parma, which struck the Philippines, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia in recent weeks, have killed at least 650 people and made hundreds of thousands homeless. The total cost of the damage is likely to be more than $1 billion. Over the past decade the toll of natural disasters in the region seems to have skyrocketed: the 2004 tsunami killed more than 220,000 people in Indonesia, Thailand, India and Burma; in 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed more than 140,000.
Climate change has something to do with it. But so has another man-made blunder: throughout Southeast Asia, governments from Vietnam to Thailand to Indonesia to China have favoured a strategy of economic growth at any cost. The financial crisis of 1997-98 and the current global financial crisis have only made this imperative even stronger, since the region’s authoritarian (Vietnam) and pseudo-authoritarian (Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore) leaders rely on providing economic success to keep their populations in line.
Large swathes of coastal forest and swamp have been cleared to make way for tourist resorts, ports and manufacturing zones. The forests were natural barriers against tsunamis and typhoons; bare coastlines allow the extreme weather to head farther inland. During the 2004 tsunami, parts of India with large coastal mangrove forests fared better than areas without such forests. Meanwhile, the overdevelopment of coastal areas has eroded and weakened the soil. When tidal waves, cyclones or other disasters strike, the erosion allows even worse flooding.
A century ago, countries like the United States, Japan or Great Britain could pursue a growth-at-all-costs strategy without having to worry about the environmental mess they were creating. But today, the sheer number of people in developing regions like Southeast Asia and the speed of industrialisation, not to mention the knowledge of its consequences, means that a growth-only philosophy is unsustainable.