L to R: Pacific Delegates Candace Burnham & Yoko Okura, Carnegie Council's Amanda Ghanooni, in Manila, October 2018. CREDIT: Devin Stewart.
L to R: Pacific Delegates Candace Burnham & Yoko Okura, Carnegie Council's Amanda Ghanooni, in Manila, October 2018. CREDIT: Devin Stewart.

Climate Change in South & Southeast Asia, with Yoko Okura

Dec 17, 2018

Yoko Okura of Mercy Corps discusses her recent visit to Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, the site of a camp for 1 million Rohingya refugees. She learned every day, that 700 tons of trees--four football fields--are being cut down for firewood and construction, bringing an increased risk of landslides and floods. She also reflects on her visit to Manila with Carnegie Council and the advantages of traveling with a group from different disciplines.

DEVIN STEWART: Today's podcast is a part of our ongoing reflections on a recent trip to the Philippines as part of our Asia Dialogues delegation on climate change, sponsored by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Yoko Okura will be calling in from Jakarta today to report on her work and her reflections from that trip in the Philippines.

Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Yoko Okura. Yoko is regional program and advocacy manager at Mercy Corps in Jakarta for the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance. She is based in Jakarta.

Yoko, great to have you on the phone today.

YOKO OKURA: Thank you for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: Yoko was one of our Pacific Delegates who joined us recently in Manila, Philippines, to look at climate change issues including resilience and mitigation, but Yoko has just returned from a visit to Bangladesh, including Cox's Bazar, to look at flooding and other issues.

Yoko, tell us about your recent trip to Bangladesh. How did that go?

YOKO OKURA: Basically, the project that I'm on, the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, is a multi-sector partnership between the private and public sectors, and academia, focusing on finding practical ways to help communities and countries strengthen their resilience to flood risk. I look at country programs for Mercy Corps in Nepal, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.

I just returned this morning actually from Cox's Bazar. Why I was there is—Cox's Bazar obviously is a huge humanitarian crisis. There are 1 million Rohingya refugees there now, and the influx of this many people in the area has led to an increased risk for the refugees and also the host community to risks such as landslides and floods.

Why this happens is basically 13,000 hectares of forest have been lost due to shelter construction and cutting down trees for firewood. A report in May by the humanitarian sector (Inter Sector Coordination Group) said that 700 tons of trees are cut down each day in Cox's Bazar to collect firewood for cooking. 700 tons of trees is basically four football fields every day.

You have a population that is already extremely vulnerable, but if the kind of planning and programs by humanitarian actors and governments on how to be prepared and also respond to natural disasters such as floods and landslides—it puts the community at huge risk.

Mercy Corps has been working with a UN agency on rolling out an assessment tool that sees the humanitarian crisis from a systems perspective on disaster risk reduction and resilience, so I was there to write about how that was rolling out and also for this project on the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance on what the Alliance can do to basically contribute to solving some of these problems.

DEVIN STEWART: You also joined us in the Philippines for examination of the climate change issues there. What would you say was your biggest takeaway from our trip to the Philippines together as a group?

YOKO OKURA: My impression was, for the Philippines I think it was Typhoon Haiyan or Yolanda which had a really big impact on the government, the public, the community's perspective on disasters and climate change and that specific action was necessary. I think that sometimes such large events and threats are obviously very devastating, but they can become opportunities for governments to actually really start acting on this and for people at the household level to be thinking about what to do if a flood comes or what to do for the next hurricane season.

I think also what left an impression was one of the communities we visited talked about rising sea levels and that it was affecting their livelihood. So I think that it's becoming apparent how rising sea levels and climate change are really affecting the way people live, and these are the patterns of livelihood which can lead to other problems such as migration or urbanization.

DEVIN STEWART: You've done climate change work in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, Philippines, and other places. What would you say is one of the common denominators in how these issues affect the way donors, policymakers, and practitioners should respond? Are there some common lessons that you've learned?

YOKO OKURA: I think that one big lesson that I'm seeing is, I would say that government systems are very important to manage issues like flooding. For example, in Indonesia we're doing a project in the Garang River basin, which is a big river that runs in central Java, but governances and agencies that govern the upstream part and the development near the coast and the downstream part are different. It's very difficult to really work on this issue of flooding if you have different agencies that aren't communicating with each other because they are in charge of different parts of this river, but for example, coastal development and upstream areas will affect the flow of water in downstream areas.

So I think that understanding that these issues like climate change and these disasters that are exacerbated because of it, such as floods, to understand—I think that you hear that climate change is a global challenge, all these disasters are a global challenge, but to understand that even at the kind of local governance level it is still a challenge for the kind of siloed agencies to work together to solve this issue.

DEVIN STEWART: Yoko, looking back on our Pacific Delegates Asia Dialogues trip to the Philippines, how do you foresee that trip's impact on your career coming up? Are you going to stay in touch with the other delegates? Are you going to work on any projects together or anything else?

YOKO OKURA: I think that the delegates, it was a really great opportunity to come together with people with the same interests but from very different sectors. There were delegates from academia who were very brilliant, like talented people, pursuing research in this area, or people from the private sector who approach this in a very different way.

I notice myself when I'm working in this field that you tend to meet the same kind of people from the same sectors, and I think it's true for different issues as well. But to have that space for different people to come together to discuss and ask questions that you had never really even thought about, I think it was definitely kind of an eye-opener in a way.

We still keep in touch. They have become my really close friends, so I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to go when the Carnegie Council organized this.

DEVIN STEWART: Great. Thank you so much, Yoko.

Any other final thoughts before we conclude?

YOKO OKURA: I think especially the Conference of the Parties (COP) negotiations in Poland and other events going on, you hear a lot of the conversations that, well, we need to be investing more in disaster risk reduction and resilience, but research has shown that only 13 percent of, for example, aide spending, goes into the pre-event preparedness part of risk reduction, and 87 percent goes to the post-disaster relief.

So I think that a challenge for countries and their agencies and governments is how they can start allocating budgets and basically doing more planning so that you are investing in preparedness for risk instead of responding and responding and responding every time.

DEVIN STEWART: Thanks for your insights today, Yoko. Yoko Okura is regional program and advocacy manager at Mercy Corps in Jakarta. Great to speak with you today.

YOKO OKURA: Thank you.

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