A sense of urgency after several natural disasters has propelled Asia-Pacific nations into drawing up "concrete, practical" plans for cooperation in disaster management, a senior regional official has said.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) concluded its annual meeting on 24 July in Singapore with disaster management high on the agenda after Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the earthquake in Sichuan, China.
"Knowing that this region is very prone to natural disaster, I think there was a sense of urgency within the ARF to move expeditiously … and to be ready in the event the next disaster happens," Pratap Parameswaran, head of the ARF Unit at the ASEAN secretariat, told IRIN.
At the end of the meeting, the ARF announced it would hold its first region-wide disaster relief exercise and consider deploying military assets as part of plans to deepen cooperation on disaster management.
The exercise is tentatively scheduled for 2009 in the Philippines, said Parameswaran, who hailed the initiative as a concrete step forward for the 27-member security forum often criticised as just a "talking shop".
The ARF also called for greater civil-military coordination in major disaster responses. It noted that "military assets and personnel, in full support and not in place of civilian responses, have played an increasingly important role in regional disaster responses".
The humanitarian community welcomed the measures, saying the backing of ARF governments would provide new momentum to regional disaster management.
"There is no doubt that the deployment of military assets for disaster response and relief operations is beneficial," Loy Rego, deputy executive director of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, told IRIN.
"The more experience the militaries of the region have in dealing with these civilian matters, the better they are in delivering in major events," he added.
While recognising the military's logistics capacity, organisations also emphasised the need for overall civilian control in disaster response, and independence from military operations.
"The mandates and competencies of humanitarian and military organisations are different and should not be confused," chief executive officer of Care Australia, Julia Newton-Howes, told IRIN.
The ARF includes the 10-member ASEAN as well as Australia, China, the European Union, India and US.
Besides the call for greater civil-military coordination, the ARF will explore the feasibility of listing military and civil defence assets to be deployed for disaster relief. "We're looking at maybe having a database of information, what resources are available and can be deployed in an emergency from within ARF countries," said Parameswaran.
However, a disaster-affected country will still bear primary responsibility for humanitarian relief and coordinate relief efforts, while external assistance should be provided in response to requests from the affected country, the ARF said.
Although the ARF is focused on security and defence issues, disaster relief has been an area for cooperation since 1997, with costs shared among members.
Discussions on disaster management gained renewed urgency after the 2004 tsunami. In 2006, the ARF adopted a statement on disaster management and emergency response that includes plans for regional standby arrangements for immediate humanitarian assistance. Last year, it took up guidelines on disaster relief cooperation.
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