COVID-19 and climate resilience: Effective disaster prevention and management practices 

Read time: 7 minutes

Guest author: Olga Chepelianskaia (UNICITI)

Editor’s note: This post shares the findings of two related articles that link the current crisis with climate resilience. These investigate: 1) human encroachment into natural ecosystems; and 2) resilience planning in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

As we’ve crossed 1 million cases of COVID-19, entire countries and cities are locked
down. Hashtags #SocialDistancing and #FlattenTheCurve have hit top popularity. Our
lifestyles shattered, we can only wonder how we could have possibly avoided this crisis and what structural elements can help us not only emerge from it, but also prevent  future disasters of different kinds.

COVID-19 and sustainable development - Effective crisis management practices - Olga Chepelianskaia - 7.04.20
Confirmed cases of COVID-19 Source: ​Our World In Data

Looking at the elements that led to the crisis, we realised that these are closely related
to the way we interact with our ​natural ecosystems. And, looking at how the crisis is
handled at its best, we saw that ​the same elements allow the same countries to
successfully mitigate climate change effects.​ Two articles below shared our findings.

Human encroachment into natural ecosystems

Did you know that 60% of emerging infectious diseases affecting humans are zoonotic?
This means they originate in animals. And, importantly, over 2/3 of these originate in
wildlife. Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and the president of ​EcoHealth​, states that
every emerging disease in the last 40 years came from ​human encroachment into
wildlands​. For example:

– Nipah Virus​ pilled over from fruit bats when the forest was cleared for pig farming​;
– Ebola Virus outbreaks often are linked to hunting for “bushmeat” or to mining
– Hendra Virus caused the death of 4 people and dozens of horses in Australia after
suburbanization lured infected bats.

India human encroachment
The link between deforestation and health diseases in India
Source:​DTE/CSE Data Centre 

This learning makes it imperative for us to ​manage our natural ecosystems with care
and sensitivity in order to prevent the blowout of these diseases and to keep them from
turning into pandemics. And this is equally valid to prevent climate change effects.
Southeast Asia lost over 30 % of its forest cover in recent years and this deforested land
is being used for urban growth and intensive cultivation, thus bringing us in close
proximity to wildlife. In other words, urban expansion at the cost of natural ecosystems
is a very dangerous approach. Here, let’s look at the approach adopted by the ​One 
Health Initiative​:

1.  The initiative ​locates disease hotspots based on how people alter the landscape and
maps human encroachment, say a new farm or a road developed in a forest area. This
helps locate where the next diseases are likely to spill over into humans.

2. It spreads awareness about these locations so that preventive planning measures are
taken and a disease outbreak is avoided.

crossing over to humans
Geographical location of events where a disease has crossed over from animals to humans
Source: ​International Livestock Research Institute

It is the need of the hour that we collectively go further and prevent such harmful
encroachments from happening. We need to ensure that we don’t destroy natural
ecosystems for short term gains. Not only do we create a ​healthier and safer living
environment when doing so, we also leverage ​numerous co-benefits such as
recreational and cohesive natural public spaces in cities or cost effectiveness
compared to heavy engineering solutions to deal with climate threats.

Further reading and links on this topic: 

Preparing for and handling emergencies: Learning from Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan

Epidemic preparedness starts years before an outbreak. So does climate change
preparedness. ​Interestingly, there’s a lot in common between the two. Hong Kong,
Singapore and Taiwan are all located near mainland China. Given their close proximity
to the COVID- 19 epicentre, these could have been by now greatly affected. However,
this is not the case. As of 7 April, Hong Kong had 936 confirmed cases and 4 deaths;
Singapore has 1,375 confirmed cases and 6 deaths, and Taiwan has 376 confirmed
cases and 5 deaths.

Climate adaptation action too shows commendable achievements:

  • HONG KONG ​Landslides reduced by ​75% through the ​Landslide Prevention and
    Mitigation Programme (LPMitP)​;
  • SINGAPORE ​Flood-prone area reduced from ​3,178 ha in the 1970s to 34 ha in 2013
    while average temperature and mean sea level increased;
  • TAIWAN ​Typhoon Soudelor (2015) generated 10 times fewer deaths than Typhoon
    Morakot (2009) as a result of the ​National Climate Adaptation Policy Guidelines
    focused on non-structural interventions.
Singapore green
Singapore’s green and blue spaces – land-use plan 2030.
Source: ​NCCS

Building on the learnings of our publication on ​Ecosystem-Based Climate Resilience
through Land Use Regulations in Asian Cities​, we at UNICITI examined parallels
between how these countries handle climate change and the epidemic. We found the
following similarities:

Dedicated authority in charge

As per the Global Health Security Index, 131 countries are least prepared to respond to
an epidemic. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan learned from SARS in 2003 and kept a
dedicated national authority in charge of health crises till today: ​Center for Health
Protection (CHP) in Hong Kong​, Quarantine and Epidemiology Department in Singapore
and​ ​National Health Command Centre NHCC in Taiwan​.

Similar structures are in place for climate adaptation. For Hong Kong, a three-tier
emergency response system – Hong Kong Emergency Response System for Natural and
Man-Made Disasters ​- ​are in place since 1996. Similarly, Taiwan has Central Disaster
Prevention and Preparedness Council in Taiwan.

​Acting in advance versus in response

By 1 February, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan had all proactively implemented
travel restrictions on passengers coming from mainland China, despite the WHO then
claimed travel bans were not necessary. Similarly, Integrated Ecological Urbanism and
Green Strategies were in place as early as the 1960s in Singapore.

hong kong
Framework for sustainable landuse – Hong Kong landuse map
Source: ​ASCE Library

Proactive data collection

Learning from the SARS outbreak, ​Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan developed
testing capacity for new viruses as well as hospitals’ ability to handle patients with
novel respiratory pathogens. Consequently, Singapore detects 3 times more cases than
the global average.

In climate change, governments established climate data processing
observatories/institutions such as:

  • The Hong Kong Observatory​,​ ​established in 1988, is responsible for monitoring
    and forecasting the weather, as well as issuing warnings on weather-related
  • Meteorological Service Singapore (MSS)​ ​commenced in 2013. It monitors and
    projects climate in the country, does risk and impact assessment of natural
    environmental hazards​;
  • Climate Change Projections and Information Platform Project, Taiwan​ ​was
    launched in 2013. It is a user-friendly service platform providing data on
    observed and projected climate change.

Comprehensive data produced by these agencies helps stakeholders conduct a detailed
analysis of the changing climate and take preventive measures or develop
adaptation/mitigation policies.

Further reading on this topic:


What can we conclude here? ​A country well prepared for one kind of a disaster is often
prepared for other kinds of disasters too. ​Because it is a matter of awareness followed
by dedicated and proactive strategies and institutional setups. These offer effective
measures to dampen the impact of the various crises we are yet to face – be it a matter
of global health or of a climate-related disaster at hand. We too have the potential of
achieving a symbiosis between urban development and natural ecosystems we take so
much from. Could this ongoing outbreak set further precedence and turn the tide on the
unsustainable urban development practices? Let us know your thoughts.


Olga_profile_pic_200xOlga Chepelianskaia is principal consultant and founder at UNICITI. Olga has international technical field experience in over 20 Asian cities and 40 Asian countries, conducted in the frame of programs and projects implemented for a number of international development institutions such as the ADB, CDIA, UNECE, UNEP, UN ESCAP or UNDP.


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