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Regional disaster response "is the goal"

Manila - Police evacuate an elderly couple from a flooded section of suburban Pasig city east of Manila on 28 September 2009
Manila - Police evacuate an elderly couple from a flooded section of suburban Pasig city east of Manila (Jason Gutierrez/IRIN)

The ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Center) was formally endorsed and signed at the association's summit on 17 November in Bali, signalling a greater role for regional mechanisms.

"That's the goal. That's the way forward," Oliver Lacey-Hall, regional head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Bangkok, told IRIN.

When disaster strikes, national capacities are often not enough, with regional mechanisms such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Secretariat of the Pacific offering a second line of response. The UN and international community would form a third tier - ready to assist national and regional efforts when asked, he said.

Establishing order in times of crisis is one of the goals for the AHA Center, active some five years after the first regional workshop on its establishment in 2006.

Southeast Asian countries have not always had the capacity to respond in full, but the time when the international humanitarian system was dominated by a few countries and western aid agencies is over, Lacey-Hall said.

"Many of these countries now see disaster management as a priority," he said. "There has been a change from the government saying, 'Give us what you've got' to 'This is what we need'".

National response

For example, the US Navy, anticipating a request for international assistance in dealing with the worst flooding Thailand has seen in decades, docked an aircraft carrier and other ships off the country's coast at the end of October, but the relief response remained dependent on national capability and the ship set sail without doing anything.

Such decisions contrast with the now unheard-of response to the devastating Asian tsunami in December 2004, which left more than 220,000 people dead in 13 countries and resulted in a deluge of immediate, but often disorganized international support, particularly in worst-hit Indonesia.

"In Indonesia, there is an increase in better response systems with the capacity to immediately address the issues and easily mobilize to local areas where the disaster is occurring," Iwan Gunawan, a senior disaster risk management specialist at the World Bank in Indonesia, said. Similarly beefed-up national response schemes are becoming the standard throughout the region, he said.

But disaster response is inherently political and filled with good intentions that cannot be dismissed or discounted, no matter how unnecessary or impractical, experts say.

Governments are careful to refuse international assistance - even Japan, where Indonesia sent 10 to 20 people to respond, and also learn from the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

"Countries can't say, 'Thanks, but no.' They have to manage it very carefully," Lacey-Hall said.

Going local

Some 2.4 million people were affected by Nargis which struck southern Myanmar in May 2008.

Some 2.4 million people were affected by Nargis which struck southern Myanmar in May 2008.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Hope fades for cyclone missing
Some 2.4 million people were affected by Nargis which struck southern Myanmar in May 2008.

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
Some 2.4 million people were affected by Nargis in May 2008

In a recent high-level meeting which brought together disaster response specialists from Asia, Valerie Amos, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, affirmed the shift away from emergency response dominated by the West.

"We can no longer afford to continue as before. We must evolve, and we must do it together," she told participants of the Regional Humanitarian Partnership Meeting on 12 October in Shanghai.

Asia is the most disaster-prone region in the world; in 2010, disasters affected more than 200 million people. In global terms, 89 percent of all people affected by emergencies live in Asia.

But coordinating the increasing capacities of nations to respond to their own crises and those of others remains largely unchartered territory for regional groups.

Using ASEAN's highly political and pivotal role in the regional response to Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008 as an example, the AHA Center hopes to add value to what many hope will prove a new trend in disaster response.

"If something happened to one of the ASEAN countries, that's when the spirit of togetherness is needed the most," Said Faisal, provisional director of the AHA Center, from the headquarters in Jakarta, explained, noting, however, that ASEAN states would need to call on the AHA Center for help, otherwise it would not engage.

Challenges ahead

"There are a considerable number of questions about the AHA Center, including, what they are for?" said a disaster management expert with 27 years' international experience, who wished to remain anonymous, although he said: "The centre would be good as an information hub to allow a smoother flow of information and create a streamlined response."

Meanwhile, the World Bank's Gunawan suggested a role for AHA in building up the national response capabilities of member states by coordinating exercises, or even by allowing teams of responders to arrive at a disaster in the region to learn through helping.

In any case, as the AHA Center materializes, it will still be years before its place in disaster response is fully realized, many believe.

"It is important to have regional institutions - it will help a lot in response to natural disasters," Ignacio Leon-Garcia, OCHA head of Indonesia, said. "We're still a long way off, but future partnerships with these regional institutions will prove key."


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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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