Roberto Saltori/Flickr

World News


Challenges to Disaster Management in Southeast Asia

When several countries in Southeast Asia announced their intention to develop nuclear power recently, many inhabitants of that region were spooked. Even as developed countries are shutting down their nuclear power plants, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam have indicated that they will be building their first nuclear power plants. The biggest concern is that Southeast Asia is prone to frequent natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis.

If a major earthquake or tsunami set off a nuclear disaster equal to that which struck Japan in March 2011 were to hit any one of those countries mentioned above, the devastation for the region as a whole will almost certainly be much greater since countries in Southeast Asia are located in close proximity to one another. For example, a nuclear disaster in Malaysia or Indonesia will almost certainly place the five million inhabitants of Singapore in serious peril. Even worse, Southeast Asian countries have yet to develop the capacity to mount effective disaster relief operations.

Southeast Asia is made up of 11 countries and in terms of landmass, the region is roughly half the size of the United States. With a total population of approximately 620 million and an average per capita GDP of US$2,500 (in 2009), Southeast Asia has experienced two major natural disasters in the last decade: the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the 2008 Cyclone Nargis.

The two natural calamities claimed the lives of more than four hundred thousands and caused tens of billions in damages in an already impoverished region. But despite the devastation, most Southeast Asian countries remain ill-prepared today to deal with major calamities for three crucial reasons.

Firstly, state interference remains a major stumbling block to the timely delivery of aid relief in the wake of disasters. Cyclone Nargis is a case in point. In the aftermath of that disaster, the military junta in Myanmar rejected international offers of assistance for fear that foreign militaries might gain access to the hermetic state. So instead of granting the US military permission to deploy its impressive airlift capabilities to the disaster relief effort, the military junta in Myanmar opted to shutter the country.

But with few helicopters and roads to disaster areas destroyed, it was impossible to deliver aid supplies to the victims without foreign military assistance. As a result, scores of victims perished due to dehydration, hunger, and hypothermia even though they had survived the initial onslaught of Cyclone Nargis. Only after Washington threatened to intervene in the humanitarian crisis did the military junta in Myanmar finally relent. US military aircraft were at last permitted to deliver aid supplies to victims in hard to reach areas. But unfortunately for many, international aid relief arrived too late. In the end, the delay in aid delivery had exacerbated a natural disaster into a man-made catastrophe. The military junta remains in power in Myanmar today.

Secondly, many disaster relief agencies operating in Southeast Asia still lack the capacity to accurately assess a disaster situation and this limitation can severely hamper their ability to mount effective relief operations. As a case in point, in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, disaster relief agencies delivered to Aceh aid supplies that could not be consumed or used by many of the survivors because they were Muslims. In the end, those aid supplies had to be re-directed elsewhere while fresh ones had to be brought in. Such intelligence errors can prove deadly for disaster survivors since the first 48 hours of a disaster is when the most number of lives can be saved.

Ultimately, disaster relief operations are effective only when aid supplies fit for consumption are delivered to disaster survivors in a timely manner. Delivering aid supplies that cannot be consumed or used (for religious reasons or otherwise) only adds insult to injury. The fact that relief agencies operating in Southeast Asia do not even understand their own backyard is indeed troubling. And there is no indication that this state of affairs is any better today.

Thirdly, coordination between disaster relief providers (military and civilian) and national governments in Southeast Asia remains wanting. This is partly due to the fact that disaster relief providers prefer their autonomy and working closely with other key stakeholders involved in disaster relief is likely to run counter to that imperative. On the other hand, national governments in that region may be averse to working closely with disaster relief providers for fear that they may lose operational control of the relief effort. But for any disaster relief operation to be effective, all stakeholders involved must coordinate their efforts regardless of their imperatives and differences.

As witnessed in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, key stakeholders were pre-occupied with carving up disaster zones among themselves, flying their own flags and showcasing their involvement to the world instead of working together. This ego-centric approach to disaster relief even prompted some experts in the field to compare it to a beauty contest where participants compete ferociously for recognition. While some competition between the stakeholders may benefit disaster victims in the sense that it drives the former to be more responsive, it is typically the case that excessive competition only results in poorly coordinated disaster relief operations. To improve Southeast Asia’s response to major disasters, the following initiatives must be taken by key stakeholders involved in disaster management in that region.

In Southeast Asia, the responsibility for collecting disaster-related information falls squarely on national governments. Meanwhile, disaster relief agencies are barred from engaging in such activity for national security reasons. As such, disaster relief agencies are completely dependent on national governments in the region for information vital to their work. But given the bureaucratic tendency to hoard information, disaster relief agencies are typically given less than what they need to accurately assess a disaster situation. Consequently, their disaster relief efforts are affected. To improve the region’s response to disasters, national governments in Southeast Asia must be prepared to share information with disaster relief agencies on a routine basis. As opposed to withholding information from them, national governments must be open to regular informational exchanges with disaster relief agencies so as to enhance their assessment of a disaster if it were to occur. A better understanding of cultural nuances, topography, weather patterns and even local security issues by disaster relief agencies will only benefit the victims.

While government concerns over the mishandling of shared information is legitimate, it is also important to point out that since World War II disasters have killed far more people in Southeast Asia than armed conflicts in the region ever did. If history is any guide, then the main focus of national governments in Southeast Asia should be on effective disaster management rather than on the risk of sensitive information being exploited by external powers.

Steps must also be taken to enhance cooperation between all the stakeholders involved in disaster management in Southeast Asia. They include national governments, disaster relief agencies, local civil society groups and major external powers such as China, the US and Japan. The role of civil, society groups in disaster relief is often overlooked due to their minuscule size. Indeed, these groups are mostly constrained by limited manpower and funds. But local civil society groups can contribute meaningfully to disaster relief efforts since they are often the ones that are able to gain access to disaster areas in the immediate aftermath. An added benefit of working closely with local civil society groups is that they are a valuable source of information since these groups are typically embedded in the disaster zones. If anything, these groups will be the first to know what kind of aid supplies are truly needed, road conditions in disaster areas, and whether the disaster relief effort should focus on recovery rather than rescue.

Meanwhile, disaster relief efforts must also be closely coordinated with major external powers. While the US continues to be a major contributor of humanitarian aid in Southeast Asia, China and to a lesser extent, Japan, have emerged in recent years to rival the US in that role. Indeed, China managed to gain access to Myanmar even before the US did in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami underscoring Beijing’s growing influence in a region that the US has dominated since World War II. Until Southeast Asian countries develop the capacity to mount effective disaster relief operations, they must be prepared to work closely with these external powers.

Lastly, the people of Southeast Asia must be open to external assistance in times of humanitarian crises. As pointed out earlier, state interference prevented the timely delivery of aid to Myanmar in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and scores of victims perished as a result. To a large extent, that incident clearly undermines traditional notions of state sovereignty. Indeed, when a national government rejects foreign assistance even as it lacks the capacity to response to a disaster, then the state for all intent and purposes has failed and the responsibility to aid disaster victims ought to shift to the international community.

While traditional notions of state sovereignty will undoubtedly challenge this proposition, there is no question that the disaster victims themselves would not have it any other way.

In summary, we have highlighted herein three crucial factors that continue to hamper Southeast Asia’s ability to response effectively to major disasters. State interference in disaster relief efforts, inadequate assessment capacity of disaster relief agencies and loose coordination between all stakeholders involved in disaster management remain as major obstacles. While not exhaustive, these three factors are significant enough to warrant swift policy action. Moving forward, national governments in Southeast Asia must be prepared to share information with disaster relief agencies on a routine basis and work with them in disaster relief operations.

Lastly, the people of Southeast Asia will benefit as a whole if international humanitarian assistance is welcomed by them. Admittedly, these prescriptions are not easily acceptable to many in the region. But if there is indeed a silver lining to the two major disasters that struck Southeast Asia in the last decade, it is the recognition that bold initiatives must be taken to improve the region’s response to disasters. The severe devastation brought on by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and 2008 Cyclone Nargis was indeed a wake-up call. Now one just wonders how severe the next disaster must be before the region as a whole commits itself to hard choices.