Publications

RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies Year In Review 2022

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Research Themes:
Type: Annual Reviews
20 December 2022

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This annual publication is the NTS Centre’s reflections on the events of the past year and contemplations on issues of non-traditional security in Southeast Asia and beyond. In 2022, the world was confronted with multiple crises. While countries started to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war caused humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and heightened the risk of global economic recession. In addition,  climate change increasingly posed an existential threat to mankind, with countries in different parts of the world experiencing extreme weather events of higher intensity and larger scale. The NTS Year In Review 2022 includes a series of insightful articles on the implications of COVID-19, the Russia-Ukraine war, and climate change from a non-traditional security perspective, highlighting possible mitigation measures and future actions. It comprises articles which discuss the intersections of different NTS issues in the region, such as food security, climate change, humanitarian emergency, nuclear energy and technology. These articles draw out some of the potential pathways for addressing the complex challenges in the region. We hope that you will find these articles useful in providing a comprehensive understanding of the kinds of risks and threats we face today. Finally, as always, we showcase our Centre’s activities for the year and the varied publications of our researchers in 2022.

Countering Disinformation and Misinformation in Humanitarian Relief Work

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: S. Nanthini
Research Themes:
Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief
Type: Commentaries
7 December 2022

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SYNOPSIS

Humanitarian organisations are trying to adjust to the rapid transformation of information and communication technology. The rise in disinformation and misinformation poses significant challenges to the sharing of accurate information in times of need. Humanitarian organisations must invest more in efforts to adapt to the realities of the information landscape today.

220812 CO22127 Countering Disinformation and Misinformation in Humanitarian Relief Work
Source: Freepik

COMMENTARY

The Digital Age has transformed the way we live and work. The use of and access to advanced technology has also altered humanitarian work with impact on data collection, communication, finance and humanitarian operations on the ground. Social media has transformed the way people connect, communicate and share information instantaneously in the humanitarian space, including communications between affected communities and those offering assistance.

Along with this improved ability to share information and communicate also comes disinformation and misinformation. As humanitarian relief organisations work primarily in crisis contexts where disinformation and misinformation thrive, they face the challenge of ensuring that people trust the information they share and can access the help they need.

Disinformation and Misinformation in the Information Age

While false or misleading information are not new, the advent of the Digital Age has accelerated their dissemination in the medium of what is now commonly known as ‘fake news.’ This can take the form of misinformation where false or inaccurate information is spread regardless of any  intent to deceive, although the source could be due to a genuine misunderstanding or the result of a targeted disinformation campaign, and disinformation where false information is deliberately spread, often covertly, to deceive or influence others.

Such communication can take the form of a campaign mounted by both state and non-state actors through a variety of media sources – notably through social media – which generally tend to be targeted at vulnerable communities. A United Nations report highlighted the significant role social media played in Myanmar that facilitated the spread of anti-Rohingya sentiment. And, according to a report by Amnesty International, insufficient content moderation by Facebook contributed to the spread of hate speech in the years leading up to the outbreak of violence.

Disinformation and misinformation spread particularly quickly during a crisis as levels of anxiety and uncertainty are high while information available is low. This was the case at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when the amount of fake news increased exponentially.

This “infodemic” undermined the public health response during the pandemic, leading to risk-taking behaviour that could and did cause harm, especially if there was an accompanying information void. A rumour that the consumption of highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the COVID-19 virus travelled around the world in 2020 and led to the death of approximately 800 people and the hospitalisation of almost 6,000 others in Iran alone. Public trust in the authorities, and humanitarian and health workers were a major casualty of this infodemic.

The Impact on Humanitarian Organisations

Disinformation and misinformation also have direct implications on humanitarian organisations themselves, and not just in the context in which they work as these negative campaigns affect their credibility. After all, the purpose of these campaigns may not necessarily be about convincing the audience but to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the humanitarian organisations. For example, in 2018, Save the Children – an international humanitarian organisation established to improve the lives of children through better education, health care, and economic opportunities, as well as providing emergency aid in natural disasters, war, and other conflicts – was the target of a disinformation campaign accusing it of colluding with human traffickers. This resulted in media attention on their search-and-rescue activities in the Mediterranean, with the far-right group, Defend Europe, even hiring its own boat to try to stop them.

The principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence that form the basis of humanitarian work are built on trust. If the reputation of a humanitarian organisation is tarnished due to disinformation and misinformation, this trust is eroded. And if public opinion is affected, funding and other support for the work of that humanitarian organisation will be adversely affected too, ultimately impacting those in need of assistance.

This erosion of trust not only inhibits humanitarian work, but may even lead to physical violence perpetuated against humanitarian workers by the very people they seek to help. This was seen during the 2014 Ebola breakout in Guinea. Low levels of public trust in officials combined with disinformation and misinformation led to attacks and incidences of fatalities amongst humanitarian workers. There is therefore a need for humanitarian organisations to be proactive in building a relationship with the community before crises take place.

What should humanitarian organisations do?

As trust is a crucial component of all humanitarian work, humanitarian organisations need to build a solid reputation for reliable information-sharing as part of their culture.

Firstly, communication should be localised and focused mainly on news or information that is oriented around community concerns. By working directly with trusted leaders and entities in the community, humanitarian organisations can help to establish legitimacy. Public criticism or mistakes made, especially during a crisis should not be covered up to avoid laying the ground for disinformation and misinformation. Such transparency contributes to a track record of honesty and reliability.

Secondly, humanitarian organisations should develop tools to counter disinformation and misinformation as part of their cybersecurity strategy. One way to achieve this is to build a coalition with dependable social media companies, fact-checking organisations and news outlets. This will enable humanitarian relief personnel to draw on a bigger pool of experience and expertise. When fake news is uncovered, action to counter it must be swift and vigorous such as by issuing corrective statements in response to these false claims. This can be done directly through the organisation’s existing media channels or contacting the social media platforms directly. Effective responses by organisations will therefore depend on their ability to access and assess updated information from constantly evolving situations.

Disinformation and misinformation should be considered a key area of concern for the humanitarian sector. It is essential for the humanitarian community to establish and enhance trust building efforts with affected communities and the broader public through the provision of timely and accurate information. Only by developing such relationships with other actors involved in the fight against misinformation and disinformation can they counter malicious campaigns aimed at undermining their work.

About the Author

S. Nanthini is a Senior Analyst with the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Programme at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Small Modular Reactors in the Philippines’ Journey Toward Nuclear Energy

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: Julius Cesar Imperial Trajano
Research Themes:
Energy security
Type: Commentaries
5 December 2022

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SYNOPSIS

The Philippines is seeking nuclear energy partnerships with various countries and allies as it aims to address the twin challenges of achieving energy security and reducing carbon emissions. How can advanced small modular nuclear reactors help the Philippines in its transition to clean energy?

220612 CO22125 Small Modular Reactors in the Philippines Journey Toward Nuclear Energy
Source: Mr Julius Trajano

COMMENTARY

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has discussed climate change and clean energy transition while pushing for nuclear power and renewables in recently concluded regional summits and key bilateral talks with allies and partners. This is part of the Philippines’ intensified search for suppliers of nuclear-powered reactors, including advanced small modular reactors (SMRs), to address the twin challenges of achieving energy security and reducing carbon emissions.

The Philippines is not alone in this; at the recently concluded COP27 in Egypt, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that the climate crisis and the energy crisis have prompted more countries, including the Philippines, to look to nuclear power as part of the solution.

Growing Optimism for Nuclear Power and SMRs

The Philippines’ growing interest in nuclear power for its clean energy transition is a reflection of the “rising global optimism on nuclear power,” which is, as the IAEA panel at COP27 depicted, “making a strong comeback.” Driving this momentum is the insatiable demand for low carbon energy, as well as secure and reliable energy.

Proponents of nuclear power promote SMRs as a right fit for developing countries heavily dependent on cheap but dirty fossil fuels. More than half of the Philippines’ electricity generation capacity comes from imported coal. But with the Philippines government’s moratorium on building new coal-fired power plants, SMRs may potentially broaden the clean energy options for the country. Furthermore, SMRs are perceived by their proponents to be ideal for isolated Philippine regions that are not connected to the main grid.

As of now, SMR technology is well-developed in countries such as the United States, South Korea, Russia, and China and may be deployed commercially soon in the coming years. Advanced reactors may play a pivotal role in meeting the climate goals of countries, which are interested in using nuclear energy for the first time. They can even facilitate hybrid synergies between nuclear technology and renewables.

Senior Filipino energy and nuclear regulatory officials have in fact been promoting both renewables and nuclear energy as complementary low-carbon sources. While advanced reactor technology has been progressing rapidly, there are many challenges to the introduction of SMRs and floating nuclear power plants, which are another clean alternative.

Seeking Nuclear Energy Partnerships

At the meeting  between US Vice President Kamala Harris and President Marcos Jr in Manila on 21 November, they announced the commencement of their bilateral negotiations on a civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement (“123 agreement”) to boost their cooperation on clean energy and non-proliferation priorities with the use of SMR technology.

Marcos is also interested in exploring a nuclear energy partnership with France which he conveyed to French President Emmanuel Macron during a meeting on 18 November on the side-lines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Bangkok, Thailand.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol also held a summit with Marcos on 12 November on the side-lines of the ASEAN Summit held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia during which they discussed the ways in which South Korea can assist the Philippines in the use of nuclear power.

These and other meetings held under the recently inaugurated Marcos’ administration may advance the Philippines’ revitalised nuclear power journey. With the goal of building nuclear power plants within the six-year term (2022-2028) of Marcos’ administration, the government is now energetically looking for potential suppliers of SMRs as these are faster to construct than conventional nuclear power stations. This may complement the possible rehabilitation of the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, which was built and completed in 1985 during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the late father of the current president.

According to senior Filipino officials, the Marcos administration is keen on importing SMRs from the US. The president himself had already met executives of NuScale Power, an American company that designs and markets SMRs.

According to the US Department of Energy, the key features of advanced SMRs being developed by the US include comparatively small physical footprints, reduced upfront cost, feasibility to be sited in locations not possible for larger nuclear plants, and provisions for incremental power additions. The proposed “123 agreement” on nuclear cooperation between the US and the Philippines will pave the way for the US to export nuclear equipment and material, including SMRs, to the Philippines.

Establishing Governance for SMRs: the Challenges

Amending the complex regulatory and legislative frameworks on nuclear power and energy security is a significant challenge, however, to the Philippines’ nuclear power journey, and most especially to the deployment of SMRs upon approval. In the absence of any acceptable model of commercial SMRs, licensing and regulatory standards for this technology would remain abstract. This presents a significant amount of work that needs to be done by the Philippine nuclear regulatory framework as it needs to be updated and adapted to include this new reactor technology. Currently, the Philippine Congress is deliberating on amending legislative and regulatory frameworks on nuclear safety, security, and safeguards.

There has been an ongoing global effort to harmonise regulatory and licensing requirements for SMRs through the SMR Regulators’ Forum hosted by the IAEA. The Philippines, along with other Asia-Pacific countries, must be able to participate fully and contribute to the reshaping of global nuclear governance as future users of this new reactor technology.

There is a need to revisit existing international nuclear conventions and regimes to assess whether SMRs are adequately covered. It has yet to be determined whether existing conventions can still be applied to SMRs even without amendments or new conventions.

Specific international guidelines on SMR’s safety, security and safeguards would be needed to consider their unique specifications. For the Philippines, it must also address critical preparatory issues and gaps in its own domestic nuclear governance to ensure the safe, secure, and peaceful use of SMRs and the nuclear power generated.

About the Author

Julius Cesar Trajano is Research Fellow with the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

NTS Bulletin October 2021

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Research Themes:
Energy security
Type: Newsletters
21 October 2021

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Advancing the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technology for a Sustainable Future

By The Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre)
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore

The peaceful uses of nuclear technology have time and time again risen up to address the world’s pressing and complex challenges, including non-traditional security issues. Access to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, science and technology is a core benefit of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). However, this aspect has been underappreciated as a key achievement of the NPT over the past 50 years. The inalienable right of States to peaceful uses institutionalised by Article IV of the NPT has reinforced their efforts to meet their national development goals and attain many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including enhancing food security, providing clean water, combatting zoonotic diseases, interventions focused on climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, natural resource management, and environmental protection.

Preparing for zoonotic disease outbreaks

Most recently, nuclear science and technology are being utilised to address two key relevant issues that affect all countries, including Southeast Asian nations: zoonotic diseases and marine plastic pollution. The obvious lesson from the pandemic is the lack of global preparedness to respond early to the outbreak of zoonotic diseases. In this regard, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) launched its COVID-19 response that involves the deployment of real-time RT-PCR test equipment, a nuclear-derived technique widely used during this pandemic, to more than 120 countries. Further to its pandemic response, the IAEA has started helping countries boost their detection capability to prevent future zoonotic disease outbreaks using nuclear-derived techniques, under its Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative.

Reducing marine plastic pollution

Another area where nuclear technology can make an impact is marine environmental protection. The IAEA is at the forefront of deploying nuclear science and technology to address plastic pollution through its new initiative, the Nuclear Technology for Controlling Plastic Pollution (NUTEC Plastic), which aims to explore and rapidly expand the use of nuclear technology to combat ocean plastic pollution and reduce plastic waste globally. Nuclear techniques can contribute to the assessment of the dimension of the plastic pollution as well as to the recycling of plastic through radiation techniques.

Southeast Asian countries strongly support and intend to participate in these two initiatives, banking on their decades-long experience in utilising nuclear technology and fruitful cooperation with the IAEA. The integration of the NUTEC Plastic project with their plastic waste control programmes will certainly enhance their respective action plans which all promote the deployment of innovative scientific solutions. The ZODIAC Initiative can certainly equip them with a new tool in preventing, preparing for and responding to zoonotic diseases.

Strengthening climate change adaptation

While ongoing debates on the critical role of nuclear power plants in achieving the goals established in the 2015 Paris Agreement remain unsettled, the role of other peaceful applications of nuclear technology in climate change adaptation has been expanding in recent years, including in Southeast Asia.

Nuclear technology has helped farmers grow rice that can cope with the diverse effects of climate change. Recent innovations from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam showed how farmers have boosted rice production in harsh climate conditions in the past five years with the help of nuclear techniques. In the past years, the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization have been helping local scientists use nuclear technology to develop climate-smart agricultural practices and improve water management.

Addressing fears and misconceptions

There are still challenges to the expansion of the peaceful uses due to misconceptions or concerns about nuclear energy and technology. There is a need to reframe nuclear issues as one that links nuclear technology with SDGs. The misconceptions emanating from issues of nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear accidents such as in Fukushima and Chernobyl, and radioactive contamination can be addressed by how nuclear technology actually help countries achieve several of the SDGs.

Regional cooperation would significantly help expand the use of nuclear technology in Southeast Asia. Building on the growing regional cooperation in nuclear safety and security, countries can explore innovative solutions to many of the complex challenges, from disease detection, climate adaptation to reducing plastic pollution with safe, secure, and peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

Indonesia’s 2060 Net-Zero Ambition: The Challenges Ahead

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: Margareth Sembiring
Research Themes:
Energy security
Type: Commentaries
12 October 2022

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SYNOPSIS

Recent developments in Indonesia’s sustainability outlook that includes a net-zero goal by 2060 are pointing to stronger commitments to reducing carbon emissions from energy use. At the same time, short- to medium-term realities, and a lack of public trust may derail the long-term sustainability vision.

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The GA Siwabessy Multi-Purpose Reactor, National Nuclear Energy Agency of Indonesia.

COMMENTARY

Indonesia pledged a 2060 net-zero goal at the COP26 last year. Following that, the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently launched a report that proposes optimistic scenarios for the country to realise its ambition.

The report comprehensively considered key energy-consuming sectors and underscored the importance of increased energy efficiency and renewable energy expansion as key strategies. It cautioned the need for policy reforms on pricing, subsidy, and renewable energy regulations. While acknowledging that the coal sector stood to lose, the report strongly argued that the proposed changes, including the tapping of Indonesia’s large nickel reserves as a competitive advantage in clean energy value chains, will be beneficial for the country’s transformation to an advanced economy.

How likely is Indonesia going to achieve the objective? Given that Indonesia has been laying down the institutional and regulatory building blocks for renewable energy development in the last fifteen years, this is not impossible. The 2060 net-zero vision was built upon ongoing efforts to increase the share of renewable energy sources to 23 percent by 2025. Just last month, President Joko Widodo signed Presidential Regulation No. 112 of 2022 on the “Acceleration of Renewable Energy Development for Electricity Generation”. The new regulation affirmed the government’s plan for renewable energy financing while setting a limit to the life of coal power plants, which is slated to end by 2050. Furthermore, the long-awaited bill on new and renewable energy is expected to be finalised this year.

The Challenges

While the targets are impressive and support for renewable energy is getting stronger, meeting the goals as per timeline may run into some challenges.

First is in managing immediate realities vis-à-vis the long-term sustainability vision. At bottom, energy sector performance must address energy security. Ensuring energy availability, accessibility and affordability will remain the government’s top priority. In view of the medium- to long-term net-zero-related goals, the government will likely have to address short-term energy security basics when emergency situations arise.

This is evidenced by difficulties arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and the current war in Ukraine. These crises have changed energy-related projections that the world had earlier. Despite the continuous push to expand the use of renewable energy sources globally, the end of coal usage is nowhere in sight. In fact, according to a recent report by the IEA, coal demand this year is expected to hit an all-time high in a decade, going up 0.7 per cent from last year to reach 8 billion tonnes this year. Coal demands in India and the European Union are expected to jump 7 per cent. The Ukraine war and its associated implications on natural gas is a strong factor driving up coal demand.

Indonesia has grappled with this type of challenge before. Towards the end of 2016, in the face of an immediate imperative to reduce the energy subsidy and maintain price levels, Ministerial Decree No. 12 of 2017 was issued to cap the incentives for renewable energy development. This was perceived as a setback to the country’s 2025 23 per cent renewable energy goal, but the decree pushed ahead anyway to ensure affordability.

Another related issue of immediate interest is in securing revenue from coal usage. In addition to domestic use, Indonesia is, at present, the largest thermal coal exporter in the world. Thus, it is highly likely that the country will continue to participate in the coal market if the demand exists. This year’s high coal price is a boon for Indonesia. By May 2022, the non-tax revenue from mineral sources and coal stood at around S$2.7 trillion; a 105.3 per cent increase from last year. By August, it had hit 200 per cent above this year’s target.

The second challenge is in ensuring coordination of policies across sectors. Achieving net-zero-related goals requires a wholesale transformation. Different sectors, however, move at different speeds depending on their contexts. Some switch to renewable energy sources more readily, while some others like the iron, steel and cement industries may need more time. This can become problematic unless realistic policies that are sensitive to the different contexts are put in place, and properly coordinated.

A third challenge has to do with external factors, such as in how soon global innovations can bring down the costs of renewable energy technologies, and how much international cooperation relating to technological and financial support that Indonesia can get.

The Trust Factor

A lack of public trust can be a hurdle too. The upcoming bill on new and renewable energy is designed to ensure that the country does not cut itself short of any energy options, including the long controversial nuclear source. While the latter is a positive development from energy security perspective, it will probably prove a liability given the strong stigma associated with nuclear power plants and the lingering suspicion of the country’s capacity to deal with nuclear safety – be it institutions, human resources, and even geography.

Considering that nuclear is a source of clean energy that can produce stable and large amounts of electricity, it may one day become necessary to meet the double demands of growing energy needs and reducing emissions. The question in the public’s mind is Indonesia’s ability to operate and manage nuclear power installations safely. Society’s pushback against nuclear may mean a relapse to coal if wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources turn out to be inadequate to meet the country’s energy security parameters.

Moving Forward

While embracing the long-term net-zero goal, Indonesia is likely to adjust its energy policies between now and 2060. The country’s energy security is relatively resilient given its large coal and natural gas resources. In fact, there is no pressing need for it to switch to renewable energy sources were it not for the climate change imperative.

At the same time, however, the country is aware that its fossil fuel reserves are depleting. It already had the experience with oil when Indonesia was a major producer and exporter in the 1970s but became an importer in the early 2000s because of its drying wells. Decarbonising the energy sector therefore is in the country’s interest, although it can fall back on its fossil fuel reserves should situations demand.

Presently, coal power plants are losing favour. It is worth recalling that nuclear power plants used to face a similar problem of public resistance. But nowadays, with technological advancements, the attitude towards civilian nuclear energy is gradually softening. For coal, it may well be the same story. When situations change, risk appetites can also change. Whether Indonesia is able to achieve its 2060 net-zero goal will depend on what will happen in the next forty years.

About the Author

Margareth Sembiring is an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Next Steps for Disaster Resilience in ASEAN

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: Alistair D. B. Cook, Christopher Chen
Research Themes:
Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief
Type: Commentaries
11 October 2022

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SYNOPSIS

The challenges posed in responding to natural hazards during the global COVID-19 pandemic were felt across Southeast Asia. As travel restrictions and supply chain disruptions ease up, it is time to revaluate disaster management and not simply revert to old ways.

 

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The devastating effects of Super Typhoon Odette (International name “Rai) in Lapu-Lap City, Cebu, Philippines. Source: Carl Kho, Unsplash

COMMENTARY

Since the news first broke about the emergence of a zoonotic pathogen in December 2019, the subsequent global pandemic not only directly affected millions of people worldwide, it disrupted many aspects of everyday life. Disaster management was impacted by lockdown measures and disrupted global supply chains of money and goods.

At the end of 2021, the impact of Typhoon Odette in the Philippines during prevailing COVID-19 social distancing measures saw limits imposed on evacuation centres and is one example of converging risks faced in the region. As the types, dynamics, and dimensions of risk events are complex and require strategic analysis and preparation, the disaster management sector needs to re-think its strategies and transform itself to strengthen capabilities and capacities to be fit-for-purpose.

Disaster Governance for all

The disaster management sector is gradually recognising the importance of planetary health – the triple challenge of pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change – in how it affects the way we deal with disasters. The planetary health framework emphasises the intersection and linkages of human activities and the planet, and promotes working together regardless of which sector we work in to address the array of challenges facing humanity; from public health to climate change and the links between them.

In August 2022, the ASEAN community met in person once again after a two-year hiatus at the 2022 ASEAN Strategic Policy Dialogue on Disaster Management. The dialogue drew attention to several broad trends and identified areas in which policy makers and practitioners should focus on to enhance disaster resilience.

What became clear at the dialogue is that there are significant plans of action, impact assessments and initiatives. The challenge is that these commitments are often limited to an individual sector with an insufficient focus on working with other sectors to achieve their aims. For us to achieve societal resilience, it will require more concerted efforts to understand one another and to work where links exist.

Societal resilience cannot be achieved by governments, researchers, community groups or businesses alone. They need to work together. Over the past twenty years, other initiatives have sought to strengthen resilience. In the private sector, Environmental and Social Corporate Governance (ESG) has gained traction since it was first used in the 2004 UN report Who Cares Wins – Connecting Financial Markets to a Changing World. These efforts seek to influence business decision-making to include impacts not just on profit but on people and the planet as well.

The challenge for ESG adherents is to connect with other sectors to change the way we work and avoid working in silos and at cross purposes. This falls alongside disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, ‘One Health’, and other initiatives in different sectors.

Developments in the Asia-Pacific are currently underway to promote this agenda. Humanitarian leader Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood and committed colleagues established the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health last year in Malaysia. The centre advocates for a planetary health approach that designs holistic policies bringing the triple challenge together with a focus on Southeast Asia. Societal resilience and efforts to build back better need to ensure that communities not only recover but thrive.

Recast Innovation

For all the talk about the promise of new technologies and innovation, it often misses the critical element of human interaction. Discussions on the topic of innovation generally centre on the use of new product hardware and software. However, we often underestimate the important role that non-technological innovations can play in improving the way we work within organisations and sectors.

Faced with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, humanitarians re-allocated available resources. For example, they channelled funds originally meant for air travel towards digitalisation initiatives to strengthen their internal ICT infrastructure. This allowed their staff to run programmes virtually and provide remote assistance. They also negotiated with donors and requested more flexibility in project timelines and budget allocation to varying levels of success.

The result was that longer-term development projects were put on hold and funding was channelled towards pandemic and natural hazard crisis response. They ‘innovated’ by adapting pre-existing evacuation protocols and processes to fit pandemic realities.

While this demonstrated adaptability, it also highlighted the absence of holistic thinking and strategic foresight by its reliance on ad hoc and reactive measures. It is important to maintain sight of the big picture and consider the secondary impacts of crisis response. This is critical to minimise any disruptions to daily operations, which considering the nature of humanitarian work, arguably increases the cost of failure.

The organisational changes involved can be challenging, requiring many layers of arbitration and involving different components within an organisation. A proactive approach is essential to ensure a smooth transition to implement new processes while maintaining pre-existing arrangements and avoiding substantial adjustments in sustainability commitments.

Disaster Resilience Fit for Purpose

Over the past two years, there have been several frameworks and documents produced to strengthen and improve disaster governance in the region. These include the ASEAN Framework on Anticipatory Action in Disaster Management, the ASEAN Regional Framework on Protection, Gender, and Inclusion in Disaster Management 2021-2025, the ASEAN Regional Plan of Action for Adaptation to Drought 2021-2025, and the ASEAN Disaster Resilience Outlook in 2021.

Therefore, the next step is to turn these discussions into tangible actions and solutions to improve disaster management in ASEAN. This can take the form of a multi-pronged approach that includes accelerated domestic capacity development across the region and fostering of inter-sectoral cooperation.

ASEAN should also work towards building links with other regions and facilitating inter-regional cooperation on disaster governance. At the national and local levels, the building of bridges between stakeholders in different regions – who share similar challenges – will have an impact on the efficacy of future disaster responses. To this end, there is a need to increase investments in the development of more robust and empowered subnational entities to complement national efforts to ensure effective, comprehensive, and inclusive policy implementation.

Countries in Southeast Asia have vastly improved their capacities to manage disasters at the national level; however, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, we still need to further strengthen these capacities within countries to better serve those communities exposed to concurrent natural hazards and risk events.

About the Authors

Alistair D. B. Cook is Coordinator of the HADR Programme and Senior Fellow, Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Christopher Chen is an Associate Research Fellow with the HADR Programme in the same centre.

Human Development and Mental Health: New Approaches and Metrics Needed

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: Julius Cesar Imperial Trajano
Research Themes:
Gender and human security
Type: Commentaries
28 September 2022

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SYNOPSIS

The latest UN study reiterated the importance of mental wellbeing and psychological resilience in human development and security. A change in approach and metrics is necessary to improve tackling of mental health issues while simultaneously managing contemporary challenges such as climate change, conflict prevention, and protection of the environment.

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Mental Health Matters, Unsplash

COMMENTARY

The Human Development Report 2021/2022 of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) entitled “Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives: Shaping our Future in a Transforming World” was released on 8 September this year. The key takeaway is that the world faces a troubled future arising from man-made (anthropogenic) existential threats which resulted in unprecedented uncertainties for peoples around the globe.

The report warns that “mental health is under assault” and significantly examines the impact of uncertainties on people’s mental health and how such uncertainties obstruct human development. In attributing this unprecedented development to an anthropogenic cause, the report has taken a significant step forward to unequivocally acknowledge mental health as a key related component of human development. This is important and consistent with the first UNDP Human Development Report 32 years ago where it maintained that “people are the real wealth of nations.”

Mental Health and Human Development

The 2021/2022 UNDP report states that in the face of unsettled lives amidst multifaceted uncertainties, mental well-being and psychological resilience are essential for human development. It added that mental stress is being caused by threats, both traditional and anthropogenic, such as the increasing frequency of climate change-induced extreme weather events, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, new zoonotic diseases, threat of the use of nuclear weapons, war in Ukraine and other armed conflicts, polarized societies, biodiversity loss, and other human security threats such as economic and food insecurity, discrimination, and violence.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, people everywhere have felt increasing distress due to complex and stressful situations in daily life. New forms of work and modern technologies have caused disruption and displacement in societies across the world. Uncertainties emerging from traumatizing events, physical illness, and general anxiety over climate change and food insecurity tend to weaken people’s mental health.

It is stunning to find out from the UNDP report that an estimated one billion people, or one in eight persons, have mental health issues. Mental distress can impede human development. Globally, it can result in mental disorders among those lacking in psychological resilience and is now the leading cause of disability. The most common mental disorders are anxiety and depression affecting 300 million and 280 million people, respectively, worldwide.

Relevant research has shown that widespread mental health problems among people exact a heavy toll on societies. Individuals affected are unable to reach their full potential. Their educational and occupational opportunities may be lost. This reduces their potential to contribute to human development and security. People with impaired mental (and physical) health have fewer job and income opportunities. In fact, people with depression earn about 34% less than the average person.

Furthermore, the effects of climate change on mental health will be distributed unequally both within and between nations; more specifically, between rich and poor nations, and hence, exacerbating inequalities. Vulnerable populations, such as socially isolated groups, indigenous and minority communities, and women and children, will be most at risk to climate-change threats.

Inequalities are also widened given that different people are exposed to distinct levels of mental distress. The increase in prevalence of depression and anxiety during the pandemic was greater among women than men, most likely because women were more vulnerable to the socio-economic consequences of COVID-19 lockdowns as well as the additional domestic and care work they had to undertake. In a multi-country survey, conducted by another international organisation (CARE), 27% of women struggled with mental distress, compared with 10% among men.

What Must be Done

Due to a lack of resources, inaccurate assessments and the shortage of trained medical staff and healthcare providers, it is estimated that not more than 10% of the world’s population can access mental health interventions/treatments. This inaccessibility to mental wellness services must be addressed through a comprehensive approach.

Universal access to mental health services should be included in social insurance schemes. These schemes empower people to manage their mental distress in the face of their sense of uncertainty. These services could be included in social protection regimes. The 2021/2022 UNDP report advocates expanding and innovating social protection schemes to deal with today’s challenges and unanticipated distress.

Human development and mental health experts strongly recommend community-based actions because that would shift the onus from the individual to the group. Community-based mental health services have greater acceptability among the population, and better accessibility and affordability than most other healthcare options. They facilitate family involvement, are less prone to stigmatization and discrimination, and promote mental health awareness.

Community-based approaches can also help overcome the prevalent stigmatization of mental health issues. For example, the Mental Health Innovation Network’s “Basic Needs Mental Health and Development Model,” has reached more than 650,000 people and their family members in low and middle-income countries.

There should also be greater investments in universal public health initiatives that rectify the social determinants of mental disorders, i.e., the underlying causes of uncertainties. For instance, there should be a comprehensive approach that seeks to improve global mental health while simultaneously tackling climate change, preventing conflicts, and protecting the environment. This requires expanded investments in a whole host of areas, including education, healthcare, peacebuilding, nuclear disarmament, employment, social support, housing, social justice, poverty alleviation, community development, climate mitigation and adaptation, and environmental protection.

Human Development beyond Conventional Metrics

HDR 2021/2022 tells us that mental health is no longer about the personal circumstances of everyone, but an essential component of human development and people’s mental health is affected by global crises and uncertainties.

While there is always uncertainty, there should be a radical change in the metrics with which we invest and think about human development. Merely relying on GDP growth, per-capita income, and other macro-economic fundamentals is not adequate as these in fact distort the reality about human development. Metrics of the future should include the state of our mental wellbeing. The latest UNDP report confirms that high or increasing worry or depression patterns have an impact on measures to improve people’s prosperity.

About the Author

Julius Cesar Trajano is Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University NTU, Singapore.

NTS-Asia Newsletter No. 50

Organisation: NTS-ASIA

Research Themes:
Type: NTS-Asia Newsletter
25 August 2022

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A yearly compilation of the latest activities and publications in NTS-Asia Consortium.

Urban Resilience: A 21ˢᵗ Century Challenge

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: S. Nanthini
Research Themes:
Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief
Type: Commentaries
19 August 2022

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SYNOPSIS

Cities are now home to more than half the global population. As the urban population continues to increase amid the intensification of the effects of climate change, urban disasters are set to affect more people than ever before. As such, strategies to build urban resilience are quickly becoming an urgent matter of global concern.

COMMENTARY

AS HIGHLIGHTED in the 2021 IPCC report, Southeast Asia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. With the majority of the region’s significant cities along the coastline, sea-level rise poses a particular threat to the region. This is seen by the increase in disasters such as coastal flooding, coastal erosion and prolonged inundation of coasts – all of which affect urban centres. Defined as the “capacity of a city’s systems, businesses, institutions, communities, and individuals to survive, adapt, and grow, no matter what chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience”, urban resilience is much needed in the 21ˢᵗ century. After all, a major source of the stress and shocks experienced by cities is undoubtedly the growing threat of climate change. Building urban resilience is therefore a key priority for cities to mitigate and adapt to the increasingly exposed climate landscape.

Urban Centres in a Climate-sensitive Landscape

By 2050, more than two-thirds of the global population will be living in urban centres. Asia’s urban population has increased from 20 percent in the 1950s to 50 percent in 2016, with this set to increase further to 64 percent by 2050. The increasing exposure of such areas to climate-related shocks and stress on a regular basis is cause for concern and demands greater policy attention. Cities in developing countries where the vast majority of urban growth will take place lack resilience due to limited funding, resources and technical expertise. An increasing urban population will only mean that more people will be exposed to both quick and slow onset disasters.

Bangkok is ranked the most vulnerable city to sea level rise in the 2050 Climate Change Index, closely followed by Ho Chi Minh City and Manila at 3ʳᵈ and 6ᵗʰ places respectively – all these cities have already experienced heavy flooding and sinking in recent years. As the effects of climate change intensify, there is also an increasingly higher risk of destruction of livelihoods, shelters, infrastructure and lives. This increases the vulnerability of the affected cities and their populations, and ultimately decreasing their overall security.

Cities: Exposure and Contributor to Climate Change

On the other hand, while cities are indeed significantly affected by climate change, it is important to note that they are also a significant cause of climate change. The process of urbanisation connects populations, leading to the rapid development of infrastructure and growth of communities, in turn enabling these spaces to become hubs of progress and innovation. However, such progress can also be at the expense of the environment. After all, cities not only use a significant amount of the global energy supply, but are also responsible for approximately 70 per cent of the world’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.

While cities themselves contribute to their own vulnerability to climate change, they must also be regarded as key actors in climate change mitigation. Thailand’s electric vehicle policy aims to ensure that 30 per cent of all vehicles made in the country are electric by 2030. Furthermore, the Bangkok Metropolitan Transport Authority plans to replace more than 2,000 of its buses with electric vehicles by 2027. While these policies are working to mitigate Bangkok’s carbon contributions, the question of negative spillover effects remain. Increased electrification might lead to increased demand for biofuels, which in turn would lead to the increased use of land or water use – whether inside or outside the region. As such, countries need to design a strategy to increase resilience rather than generate other forms of risk through spillover effects.

Urban Resilience and Climate Change

Urban resilience is therefore necessary for cities and states to protect themselves from various climate-related urban disasters. Building such resilience in the 21ˢᵗ century should include the utilisation of technology as a tool for problem-solving. As global temperatures continue to rise, it has become obvious that temperature increases are taking place much faster in urban areas compared to their rural surroundings – as is the case in much of Southeast Asia. In response, some cities are using data gathered by satellites to identify heat islands in specific areas, which may be an early indicator of wider heatwaves. Using data gathered from monitoring temperatures and past heat waves, stakeholders such as local government and civic organisations have tailored outreach efforts, health warnings and activities in specific areas according to heat risk forecasts. As not all states in the region operate satellites, partnerships for information-sharing are needed between neighbouring states.

However, funding these resilience efforts is also an issue of key concern. While Singapore has enjoyed protection from major natural hazards due to its geography, it is still vulnerable to other natural hazards such as urban heatwaves and sea level rise. As an island state, sea level rise is a particular area of concern. In an effort to increase its resilience, Singapore has earmarked S$100 billion over the next 100 years for its “climate change defences” – the upgrading of public infrastructure, land reclamation and other such efforts. By framing it as a whole-of-government approach, this ensures the financial burden will be spread over different ministry budgets, the country’s reserves as well as borrowing where necessary. However, even using such strategies, not all states in the region have Singapore’s resources when developing their own strategies for urban resilience – particularly some of the most affected by climate change. As such, strong multisector and global partnerships are necessary to fill these financial, technical and resource gaps from developed countries to international financial institutions like the World Bank’s City Resilience Program.

With Southeast Asia being one of the regions hardest-hit by climate change, it is important to recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to resilience in the face of climate change. As more people continue to migrate to cities – areas which may be partially submerged or face extreme temperatures by the end of this century – the need for sustainable and equitable strategies to develop urban resilience only grows.

About the Author

S. Nanthini is Senior Analyst at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Expanding the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technology and Climate Change Adaptation: Opportunities and Challenges

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Authors: Julius Cesar Imperial Trajano
Research Themes:
Energy security
Type: NTS Insight
18 August 2022

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