Asean: Better, faster disaster reliefs?

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DURING the past three decades, the frequency of natural disasters has increased globally but the worst increase has been in the Asia-Pacific region. Be that as it may, advances in the science of disaster risk management point out that there are no true natural disasters. Many natural hazards are accelerated by human activity and no matter how “natural” the hazard, it is human exposure, vulnerability, resilience and preparedness that define whether a given event results merely in a rainy day or natural catastrophe. In short, human behavior can be regulated unlike the weather.

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Studies of experiences about regulatory frameworks for reducing disaster risks, responding to disasters and recovering from them are still in their infancy. Yet states are increasingly turning to legal instruments at the national, regional and international levels to fight disasters. Are those legal instruments in place meeting their potential to increase cooperation on disaster risk management and humanitarian response ?

The Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (ADMER) signed and ratified by all ten member states is one such legal instrument. Agreed on as an aftermath of the 2004 Great Tsunami which hit, among others, the coastal zones of Indonesia and Thailand resulting in much loss of life and property, ADMER was already in effect (29 December 2009) when one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded, Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), hit the Visayas in the Philippines.

Some of the militaries of the Southeast Asian countries were forced to respond to the calamity but their voluntary efforts highlighted military operational shortcomings in the region. In many ways, the response was mainly on a national basis. Some transport aircraft and ships were sent but there was not enough multinational cooperation. Analysts trace the situation to the lack of trust and confidence between many governments for which reason bilateral and trilateral arrangements may be more effective.

Aware of the need for greater cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, Thailand and Korea sponsored a Southeast Asian Regional Forum Disaster Relief Exercise in Thailand while Brunei Darussalam and Singapore co-hosted in 2013 a combined military medicine/humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise with all ten Asean members involved. Additional region-wide exercises were held in Thailand in 2014. Singapore, on the other hand, offered to the Armed Forces of the Philippines its newly launched Changi Regional Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Co-ordination Center to organize multi-national military intervention in response to Typhoon Ruby (Hagupit) which made landfall in Eastern Samar on 6 December 2014 but was downgraded into a tropical storm soon after its landfall.

Take note that while defense of sovereignty is the primary responsibility of the military, the requirement to respond to floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, etc. is likely to remain a secondary priority but one, nonetheless, which is likely to increasingly influence the modernization drive of the Asean countries’ military over the next decades.

In that connection, Singapore procured large multipurpose amphibious ships in 2014. Similar efforts at modernization are being exerted by Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam even if, admittedly, security in the increasing territorial disputes is the prime mover for the heightened emphasis on the militaries’ capacity and capability in the region.

To fulfill the military requirements related to humanitarian search/rescue and relief operations, procurement targets of Asean countries like multi-role helicopters and transport aircrafts would not require new designs to fulfill the militaries’ secondary role. What is necessary is inter-operability of joint and multi-national missions with greater command-and-control capabilities among Asean’s military considering the vastness of the region.

In the light of scientific information that natural disasters are projected to intensify in the Asia-Pacific region in the future, the Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response mentioned above could serve the Asean countries well if utilized effectively and cohesively. As an agreement on disaster preparedness, emergency response and rehabilitation, it is about expedited customs and immigration clearance; faster movement of relief goods, tools and personnel (included are provision of food, water sanitation facilities and temporary shelters); setting up of an Asean disaster relief fund; better utilization of civilian and military personnel as well as stronger simulation exercises to test emergency response.

Actually, an Asean Co-ordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA) is functioning in Jakarta to facilitate cross border movement of relief efforts and coordination among member countries in joint emergency response.

An ADMER evaluation report in 2013 noted that many civil society organizations are increasingly involved in advocacy work around disaster management laws in countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

However, there is a need to complement legal instruments with strong research which could help boost our understanding of the complexities underlying risk and disaster relief at all levels.

Ambassador Amado Tolentino, Jr. is an independent consultant and professor of environmental law at San Beda Alabang School of Law.

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