ASEAN and Natural Disasters

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The past decade has seen hundreds of thousands of lives lost due to natural disasters in the Asia-Pacific. Most deadly of all was the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, but this year has also seen earthquakes in Christchurch, the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan and, most recently, the flooding in Bangkok.

The importance of disaster preparedness, including the need for stockpiles of temporary supplies like tents, blankets, medical supplies and generators, should therefore be clear to governments in the region, not least in Southeast Asia.

And yet, ASEAN states in many cases appear to lack well-trained and fully equipped Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams, which could be mobilized at short notice to devastated urban areas. At present, only a handful of ASEAN countries have local USAR capabilities, with the rest having to call upon foreign assistance during a crisis. This situation is simply unacceptable – many more lives can be lost as a result of delays in responding to a crisis.

While attention this year has been focused on Thailand’s flooding, nearby Vietnam and Burma are also prone to typhoons – Typhoons Xangsane and Ketsana struck Vietnam in 2006 and 2009, while Burma was battered by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Large urban areas and small villages alike were badly affected, and the lack of ready stocks of essential disaster relief supplies meant many more died than would otherwise have done.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have established official USAR agencies, but according to the United Nations’ International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, only Malaysia and Singapore have USAR teams that are trained according to INSARAG guidelines and have operational experience. The Special Malaysian Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (SMART), for example, has seen action in the West Sumatra Padang Earthquake in 2009, while Singapore’s Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (DART) was deployed to Aceh, Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami.

So what can be done to improve preparedness?

As a regional family of nations, ASEAN domestic affairs ministers should meet to formulate common disaster aid stockpile standards. For instance, ASEAN members might do well to consider agreeing to prepare enough emergency supplies to sustain all likely affected citizens for at least 3 to 4 weeks, after which donated foreign aid can be used to supplement freshly purchased domestic supplies. Such stockpiling would be expensive, but the sooner that the process begins, the more able ASEAN states will be able to spread the costs out in a manageable way.

Malaysia and Singapore could also take a lead on ensuring that there’s region wide preparedness by extending their expertise to ASEAN states without established USAR organizations, such as Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma. Other ASEAN states could for their part send delegations of civil defense/rescue personnel to Malaysia and Singapore to learn from their counterparts.

In Singapore, the training of nascent ASEAN USAR teams could be coordinated under the Singapore Cooperation Programme, which could act as a liaison body that could match the training expertise of DART with interested ASEAN rescue teams. To assist some of these new USAR teams with their initial equipment requirements, the SCDF could even transfer some of its older USAR hardware as a token of ASEAN solidarity. This would make operational and economic sense if the equipment was about to be phased out, but was still serviceable.

One barrier to all this is that formulating ASEAN wide emergency aid stockpiling standards might impinge on national sovereignty – some states might object to being told exactly how they should care for their own citizens. However, as ASEAN decisions are based on the agreement of all members, everyone would be on board with an agreed preparedness standard. Thus, even if the standard is low (perhaps 2 weeks’ worth of relief supplies), it would still be better than being at the mercy of Western aid donors from the onset of a disaster.

And of course there’s the objection that the USAR training could end up falling disproportionately on the shoulders of the training providing nations (i.e. Singapore and Malaysia). But this concern can easily be overcome if the training provider and recipient discuss from the outset, and in good faith, how the costs can be shared. Certainly, aside from the possible donation of dated equipment, providers shouldn’t be expected to outfit the latter.

Ultimately, the ASEAN region is prone to a range of natural disasters, meaning just waiting and hoping for the best isn’t a realistic – or affordable – option. ASEAN countries should therefore seize the opportunity to make the best of their institutionalized ties and take advantage of the experience and expertise of some of its members. And in the process, such deeper collaboration on such a vital issue could help foster a greater sense of community.

Nah Liang Tuang is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University

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