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Assessing Southeast Asia’s aid coordination during crises

Flooding in Bangkok, Thailand
(Shermaine Ho/IRIN)

Governments and aid groups in Southeast Asia, the most natural-disaster prone region in the world, say more coordination is needed to prepare for and respond to emergencies.

From 1975 to 2011, Asia had the world’s highest number of fatalities from natural disasters - 1.5 million. Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines are among the region’s most vulnerable countries.

According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), a World Health Organization-linked institution based in Belgium, there were nearly 3,000 deaths resulting from 55 natural disasters in these countries in 2011, including earthquakes, floods, tropical storms and volcanoes.

As the Philippines’ largest typhoon of the year so far, Typhoon Bopha, barrelled through the country’s south, IRIN asked emergency workers in all three countries what was working and what was not in their aid coordination during crises.


Jimmy Nadapdap, who managed World Vision’s disaster response in Indonesia for many years, believes the influx of aid groups after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami - while helpful in some regards - has created new challenges.

“Aid not only came from big international NGOs but also from community and religious groups…” he said. “But these groups didn’t understand the importance of coordinating aid. There are very specific standards on giving assistance, like the Sphere standards. Before distribution, needs should be assessed. Otherwise, you have chaos, with some communities receiving double what others get, which can cause more harm than good.”

The Sphere standards, established in 1997, are voluntary guidelines to improve disaster response.

Nadapdap said the 2007 floods in the capital, Jakarta, illustrated the dangers of “dumping aid”.

“Many local groups were just coming… without knowing that there needed to be a proper registration process to track whether the aid was going to the correct recipients.”

The UN’s cluster system, which, since 2005, has brought UN and non-UN humanitarian organizations together to coordinate emergency response, has strengthened coordination, he says.

“Since the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake, the system has helped us to avoid overlapping aid in the field and to know who is doing what, when and where.”

But Nadapdap said the system needs to embrace local groups more. “Local groups have the greatest knowledge of their areas, but the cluster meetings move fast, are dominated by foreigners, and there’s various competing priorities around the table, so sometimes local voices aren’t heard. This particularly happened in the response to the Padang earthquake in 2009.”

In terms of readiness, Iwan Gunawan, a senior World Bank disaster specialist based in Jakarta, said the government’s National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB) has improved greatly in recent years.

“The BNPB gained vital experience with the eruption of Mount Merapi in 2010,” said Gunawan. “Now it has a set of SOPs [standard operating procedures] where it looks at how it can complement aid from other organizations and fill in the gaps.”

But Gunawan warned that BNPB’s emergency response capacity has yet to be truly tested.

“The country is prepared for medium-sized disasters where provincial governments can still function,” said Gunawan. “But if it’s bigger than that, [the government’s capacity] remains to be seen.”

Dody Ruswandi, deputy head for emergency response at BNPB, told IRIN strengthening local capacity is still a challenge. “We need to encourage provincial offices to develop their aid coordination systems because, right now, it’s unclear what systems they have in place.”

BPBD offices have been set up in all of Indonesia’s 33 provinces, but only 70 percent of the country’s 500 districts, said Ruswandi.

“We need to make sure that we establish offices in the remaining districts, as they are the ones [that] must coordinate relief when a disaster affects their area,” he added.

The Philippines

Local aid groups not adhering to international aid standards is also a problem in the Philippines, said Matilde Nida Vilches, emergencies and disaster risk reduction advisor for Save the Children’s office in Makati City, in the metropolitan area of the capital, Manila.

Vilches said the cluster system did not reach local groups in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Washi, which struck northern Mindanao, 900km south of Manila, in December 2011.

“Clusters have lists of items that should go into aid packs, but local groups weren’t following these lists and their aid was incomplete,” she said. “It caused tensions on the ground between those who were getting aid from local groups and those who were getting it from organizations in the cluster.”

But Vilches said the cluster approach - adopted and led by the Philippine government - worked well at the national level.

She pointed to annual emergency response simulations led by the government’s National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), which works with 100 different groups, including UN agencies and NGOs.

Despite difficulties during Washi, Edgardo Ollet, chief of the NDRRMC’s operations centre, said the 2010 enactment of a law and guidelines to strengthen disaster risk reduction had improved aid coordination. The guidelines authorized the importation and donation of food, clothing, medicine and equipment for relief assistance and gave NDRRMC sole responsibility for monitoring incoming international aid.

The country’s national disaster management plan is periodically evaluated and updated based on best practices. However, according to Gwen Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine Red Cross, some aid groups are unaware of the national disaster management plan, which has been poorly disseminated.

“It’s very important we map out who will do what, with who can do what, and then assign the right agency or organization to the right task in emergencies,” she said.

Another problem is obtaining support from international groups in the absence of a declaration of a national emergency. This was an issue after typhoons Nesat and Nelgae hit northern Luzon Island in September 2011.

“Some aid organizations can’t release funds if they don’t hear an announcement from the government, so [this] prevented needs being addressed on the ground,” Pang said.

But one year later, aid groups are responding differently to Typhoon Bopha (known locally as Pablo), which made landfall on 4 December, she said. Although no state of emergency has been declared, international aid NGOs, including Save the Children, are already on the ground.

Advance government warning - four days’ worth - on the intensity and path of Bopha also came more quickly than during previous typhoons, said Pang.

“This allowed us to move our supplies quicker to the areas most in need, before the typhoon made landfall,” she said. “For Washi, Nesat and Nelgae, information about intensity or path didn’t come quickly enough, but this time around… we could plan the level of aid required.”

As of 6 December, the government had recorded 327 deaths, while last year’s death toll from Typhoon Washi was close to 1,400.

“There’s not been any difficulties with coordination as of yet, and we’re also looking into delivering assistance in other provinces,” Pang added.


Large-scale flooding affected 66 of Thailand’s 77 provinces during the second half of 2011, including large parts of the capital, Bangkok, killing at least 680 and affecting an estimated 13 million, according to a 2012 joint report by the Thai Ministry of Finance and the World Bank.

Residents were unable to calculate risk because of conflicting government information, noted the report. More than 10 ministries carried out risk assessments.

Adthaporn Singhawichai, director of the Research and International Cooperation Bureau in the government’s Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, acknowledged the confusing risk communication, but attributed it to lack of information management rather than the number of ministries involved.

“Because of this, the government set up a single command primarily to deal with the flood hazards,” he told IRIN.

The Flood Relief Operation Centre (FROC), set up in August 2011 - one month after the disaster struck - improved things, he said. “Only the FROC spokesperson was mandated to inform the public [about the floods] twice a day on TV,” he said. “The difficulty was that we could not manage other sources of information in the media and on the Internet.”

Even so, there were still conflicting public statements, said Nidhirat Srisirirojanakorn, an analyst with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Thailand.

“There was a lot of information flying around about the locations of the floodwaters and which parts of Bangkok were affected,” he said.

FROC was only one of several national disaster response committees whose individual roles and responsibilities were blurred, noted the World Bank-Thai Ministry of Finance report.

At the height of the flooding in Bangkok, divisions emerged between FROC (led by the national government) and Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (led by the Bangkok governor), which were at odds over flood warnings and response. The governor refused a FROC request to raise a sluice gate because he said it would lead to more flooding in Bangkok.

According to OCHA’s Srisirirojanakorn, though the government did not request international assistance during the floods, an informal cluster system was set up, which helped target 20,000 migrants stranded without aid.

The Thai government’s Singhawichai said the government is aware of coordination problems and is considering how to improve.

“The government and its partners have learned its lessons,” he said. “We believe we can now better handle flooding at the same level as last year.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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