Natural Disasters: Preparing for the Big One


According to a 2013 World Bank report, the Asia-Pacific has accounted for 61 percent of global losses from disasters in the past 20 years, with more than 1.6 billion people affected in the region since 2000. Total losses from Asia-Pacific disasters for the years 1980-2011 were an estimated $453 billion.

Speaking about the report, World Bank East Asia and Pacific Vice President Axel van Trotsenburg observed: “East Asia Pacific is the region that is most affected by cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes and floods. To confront these disaster challenges, governments need to be prepared for the unexpected and undertake major investments in disaster risk management and resilience.”

The UN has estimated that a person living in the Asia-Pacific is 3.2 times more likely to be affected by natural disaster than a person in Africa, 5.5 times more likely than a person in Latin America and the Caribbean, almost 9 times more likely than a person living in North America, and 67 times more likely than a person living in Europe.

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From Krakatoa in 1883 to the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 and Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the Asia-Pacific has experienced some of the most devastating natural phenomena on record. It remains highly susceptible to future disasters because of unique geological factors (such as the Ring of Fire) and its large, concentrated populations. By 2025, Asia will be home to 21 of the world’s 37 global megacities, making multi-billion dollar disasters even more common.

Existing Mechanisms                                                                              

Because of this vulnerability, there are many programs that help regional governments identify and respond to the threats. Early warning systems include the Pacific Tsunami Warning System, Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System, U.S. Geological Service, Pacific Disaster Center, and Geoscience Australia.

There also are a large number of international organizations and agreements that govern how humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) efforts are to be implemented. Asia-Pacific intergovernmental organizations offering humanitarian tools and services include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation, Pacific Island Forum, and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation.

Two multilateral agreements are important to highlight: the Oslo Guidelines on the Use of Foreign Military and Civil Defense Assets in Disaster Relief and the Asia-Pacific Regional Guidelines for the Use of Foreign Military Assets in Natural Disaster Response Operations. These and other agreements are based on the principle that states are always responsible for disaster response efforts on their own territories, and that external support for disaster response can only occur if a state’s national capacities are exceeded and if it requests and accepts international assistance.

All militaries focus most of their attention on traditional security roles; however, several Asia-Pacific countries have strong HA/DR capabilities. These countries include the United States, China, Japan, and Australia. Other nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh, South Korea, and India are all strengthening their HA/DR capabilities. Although each country counts its international HA/DR activities in slightly different ways, the number of missions carried out by the United States, China, Japan, and Australia are fairly equal. Often, the U.S. response is far greater in terms of assets and resources deployed.

U.S. Capabilities

The United States is the most capable, prepared, and equipped nation in the Asia-Pacific region to respond to foreign disaster relief. The U.S. military is able to respond so effectively because of its capabilities in critical needs such as air and sealift, supply chain and distribution logistics, infrastructure reconstruction, communications, and emergency medical support.

As highlighted in a 2013 Rand study, the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) has participated in more than 40 HA/DR operations in or near its area of responsibility during the last twenty years. For example, some 22 ships and 19,000 personnel were deployed to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake east of Japan, although most of the responding U.S. troops were already stationed in that country. Of growing importance in terms of USPACOM partnerships and coordination is the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance. In the past, CFE-DHMA efforts have been concentrated within the Asia-Pacific, but in FY 2015 the Center will also assume leadership and management over the Department of Defense’s global Civil-Military Emergency Preparedness Program.

Chinese Initiatives

The HA/DR initiatives of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are themselves very substantial and growing. A 2013 study explains how, at the strategic level, Chinese leaders recognize that HA/DR missions enhance and complement China’s emerging role in international affairs, while the PLA benefits by building goodwill and contributing to perceptions that China’s rise is non-threatening.

China is highly vulnerable to natural disasters, and concern over domestic disasters, particularly flooding, has been a major driver in its disaster management for hundreds of years. Most PLA operations other than war have been domestically focused. As early as 1998, however, China’s National Defense White Papers noted PLA involvement in regional peacekeeping, maritime search and rescue, and the handling of emergencies and disaster relief. Subsequent Chinese Defense White Papers have elaborated on this role. The PLA also has since accumulated a commendable record of international HA/DR operations.

China has also contributed financially to disaster response. In 2014, it pledged to provide around $8 million to build ASEAN’s capabilities to respond to regional disaster, and it donated about $1 million to help Cambodian flood victims. Also in 2014, China deployed some 200 medical workers and advisers to three West African countries fighting Ebola and contributed $123 million in grants to the World Health Organization, the U.N. Ebola Response Multi-Partner Trust Fund, and other organizations.

The PLA Navy especially has become involved in international HA/DR efforts. The Chinese navy has participated in international antipiracy operations off Somalia since about 2008. In 2011, Chinese warships evacuated more than 30,000 of its citizens from Libya. In 2014, a Chinese frigate helped escort Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons out of the country. Also in 2014, the Chinese were for the first time invited to take part in the annual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, designed to improve multilateral operability and transparency, which took place in international waters off the Hawaii coast. Last year, China sent more than a dozen vessels and aircraft and used 21 satellites to help search for the missing  Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and the Chinese navy evacuated about 600 Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from the Yemen port of Aden.

China’s involvement in HA/DR missions always seem to attract a lot of attention, and there are risks that other countries may not view Chinese assistance as effective or as well managed as that delivered by other nations. Identified areas of needed improvement include more trained and equipped military personnel, additional short-notice deployable airlift and sealift assets, and improved civil-military coordination skills.

Still, the increase in Chinese HA/DR contributions has been impressive, and China should become more integrated into regional disaster management plans. This is especially true since there appears to be high probability of larger and more devastating natural disasters occurring in the Asia-Pacific region in the future. Preparing to respond to these events requires closer cooperation and collaboration between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, as well as other major HA/DR stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific.

Regional Vulnerability

Geoscience Australia identified in 2008 several areas considered to be highly vulnerable to massive casualties and heavy damage. One area was the Marikina Valley fault near Manila in the Philippines. Other major cities at exceptionally high risk were Dhaka in Bangladesh and Beijing. Even more potentially devastating were large, unexpected explosive eruptions from one of many volcanoes in the region. A reoccurrence of Indonesia’s Tambora eruption in 1815, for example, would be catastrophic at this time because of population growth in the area. Other countries subject to highly destructive eruptions are the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu. Subduction zone earthquakes generating huge tsunamis are also possible, with the most dangerous source at the northern tip of the Bay of Bengal. Millions of people would be impacted in the coastal areas of Bangladesh, India, and Burma. Several Pacific island nations, such as Vanuatu and Tonga, could also be devastated by subduction zone tsunamis.

Much of the Asia-Pacific sits on the tectonic plate boundary between the Australasian and Indian plates, which has seen some of the world’s worst natural disasters in history. Shaped like a 40,000-kilometer horseshoe, the Ring of Fire is a string of volcanoes and sites of seismic activity around the edges of the Pacific Ocean. Roughly 90 percent of all earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire, and the ring is dotted with 75 percent of all active volcanoes on Earth. More than 450 volcanoes stretch from the southern tip of South America, up along the coast of North America, across the Bering Strait, down through Japan, and into New Zealand. Since 1850, approximately 90 percent of the 16 most powerful volcanic eruptions on Earth have occurred within the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Planning for Major Disasters

It appears from a literature review that one of the biggest gaps in Asia-Pacific HA/DR preparedness is for mega-disasters that impact several countries at the same time. These could overwhelm both national and current multilateral plans for response and recovery. Preparing for large-scale disasters is a daunting task. However, some of the first steps can be taken fairly easily in tabletop exercises jointly sponsored by USPACOM, the PLA, and other major military and civilian stakeholders.

As the National Infrastructure Advisory Council found, it is important that these exercises be designed to break existing disaster relief mechanisms. This is one of the best ways to discover what other steps need to be taken to prepare for unexpected high-intensity, low-frequency events. Possible scenarios that might severely challenge existing disaster management plans might include:

  • A rapid sequence of volcanic eruptions, major earthquakes, and tsunamis generated by movement of one or more of the tectonic plates converging, pulling apart, or sliding horizontally past each other within the Ring of Fire;
  • A large meteorite hitting the Pacific or Indian Oceans, which together cover about 45 percent of the earth’s surface; or
  • A coronal mass ejection, solar wind, or magnet storm disrupting communications and navigational equipment, damaging satellites, and causing massive failure of national electrical grids.

Only the militaries of large countries such as the United States, China, Japan, and Australia have the resources and capabilities to address HA/DR operations if a major event impacts several states nearly simultaneously. Under these rare circumstances, military involvement will likely be supported by most civilian leaders, organizations, and individuals.

It is important that national militaries approach preparedness for this possible eventuality from a perspective of regional goodwill and collaboration. It is also critical that sponsoring military organizations, which should include both USPACOM and the PLA, involve as many civil-military stakeholders as is practicable in exercises to work through the many issues necessary to prepare the Asia and Pacific region for possible mega-disasters.

Sponsoring organizations should establish a regime of periodic exercises designed to test and break existing disaster management procedures with a goal to build upon and improve current HA/DR plans and strategies. The exercises should be as operational as possible in order to tweak out the weaknesses of existing procedures and to uncover possible solutions. Ideally, this should be an ongoing process with broad and high-level participation. The expected outcomes would be improved bilateral and multilateral relationships in the region, enhanced preparedness for large-scale HA/DR operations, and – should such an event occur in the future – a better chance of a faster and more effective response and recovery effort.

Martin Lasater is a Senior Research Analyst at Energetics Incorporated, the author of several books on Sino-American strategic relations, and a specialist on critical infrastructure security and resilience. Email: [email protected]

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