Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most natural disaster-prone regions. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific estimates that natural disasters drain the region of upwards of $86.5 billion in average annual economic losses. Destruction in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Rai in December 2021 and historic floods in Malaysia during the recent monsoon season serve as a reminder of what the region stands to lose as the impacts of climate change heighten the frequency and intensity of these devastating events.
In a region inundated with natural disasters, disaster management has emerged as a highlight of regional cooperation and engagement with extra-regional partners. The need to prepare for future natural disasters underscores the importance of building upon this foundation, with an increased focus on disaster resilience and mitigation and the localization of disaster-related humanitarian action. The United States is well-positioned to assist Southeast Asia in these endeavors, which align with Washington’s capacities and objectives for the region.
Major disaster events have catalyzed an array of regional frameworks and institutions for managing natural disasters, primarily through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A regional humanitarian community emerged in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which paved the way for the Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER). Ratified by all members of ASEAN in 2005, this legally binding regional instrument for disaster management was the first of its kind in the world. After playing a key coordinating role in the response to Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, ASEAN further cemented its leading position in disaster governance. Most notably, it established in 2011 the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre) for facilitating external assistance upon request and providing capacity training and disaster information and monitoring services.
These events also triggered waves of international cooperation and financial and logistical support for regional humanitarian action from partners such as the United States. Coordinating extra-regional assistance in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami gave rise to the Tsunami Core Group consisting of the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. These countries joined forces once again through the Tripartite Core Group in the response to Cyclone Nargis. This body assisted ASEAN in building a bridge between the international community, the region, and the Myanmar state. Disaster management continues to play a consistent, though subdued, role in the United States’ engagement with Southeast Asia through military, financial, and technical assistance, including to the AHA Centre, which receives almost two-thirds of its funding from Japan, the United States, and other external governments.
Regional approaches to disaster-related humanitarian action supported by external partners have demonstrated their greatest value in not only convening and coordinating various actors but also in providing disaster information. Respondents to the 2021 ASEAN Disaster Resilience Outlook (ADRO) survey circulated among disaster management experts in the region ranked risk assessment and monitoring as one of ASEAN’s greatest strengths in disaster management. ASEAN’s various disaster information tools contribute to its performance in this area, such as the ASEAN Science-based Disaster Management Platform and the Disaster Monitoring and Response System. The Overseas Development Institute noted that despite institutional and resource constraints, the AHA Center demonstrated its competency in its response to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, in which it provided technical support for early warning and established critical communication links between local, national, and international governments.
As climate change increases the risk of more destructive climate-related hazards, mobilizing and coordinating regional resources and tools once disaster strikes is no longer sufficient for effective disaster management. However, ADRO survey respondents identified disaster resilience and disaster prevention and mitigation as ASEAN’s greatest weaknesses in disaster management. The ASEAN Vision 2025 on Disaster Management, endorsed in 2015, recognizes this shortcoming and commits the region to resilience-based humanitarian action.
The United States can leverage its assistance to the region to bolster implementation of this vision. Between 2005 and 2017, only 3.8 percent of disaster-related international development assistance focused on disaster prevention and preparedness. In 2020, just $9.8 million of the United States’ total $1.5 billion in foreign assistance obligations to Southeast Asian countries supported this objective. However, channeling funding toward anticipatory and preventative disaster management represents a wise investment, as every $1 dedicated to disaster risk reduction can save $4-$7 in response.
More explicit and deeper linkages between U.S. support for regional disaster-related humanitarian action and its climate action programming in Southeast Asia can maximize this investment’s impact. At the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit held in Washington on May 12-13, the United States outlined its intention to strengthen climate action engagement with the region through several initiatives, such as through plans to launch a U.S.-ASEAN Climate Solutions Hub to equip ASEAN countries with technical assistance for resilience strategies. Harmonizing these initiatives with existing regional disaster management institutions would reduce costly duplication of functions. It would also strengthen cohesion and synergy between disaster management and climate action to account for the interplay between climate change and natural disaster-induced humanitarian crises.
How and through whom this assistance is delivered also increasingly matters. Since the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, the “localization” agenda has taken the humanitarian sector by storm. Many practitioners recognize that international and state-dominated humanitarian action is no longer fit for purpose and instead seek to support local leadership. While regional approaches to disaster-related humanitarian assistance in Southeast Asia remain largely state-centric, ASEAN has rhetorically embraced the need to “look beyond national capitals” in its disaster management engagement. It also supports promising initiatives that can be modified to target more localized actors. These include the AHA Center Executive Program, ASEAN’s flagship initiative for capacity-building through training future disaster management leaders from the region, and the AADMER Partnership Group, which engages civil society organizations in the AHA Center’s efforts. As the U.S. Agency for International Development has launched an ambitious localization agenda under Administrator Samantha Power, aligning localization commitments and knowledge sharing of localization strategies are areas ripe for U.S.-ASEAN collaboration.
Amid more sensitive issues in regional cooperation and U.S.-ASEAN relations, including conflict-induced crises such as the one now plaguing Myanmar, natural disaster management is not always top of mind in Washington. However, it has long served as an underlying impetus and low-hanging fruit for regionalism in Southeast Asia and its engagement with extra-regional partners. The coordinating and convening mechanisms and trust forged through disaster management collaboration establish a foundation for cooperation in broader and more challenging areas. After all, today’s Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue, or the “Quad,” originated in the Tsunami Core Group and now addresses a host of security and non-security issues.
As Southeast Asia and the United States look toward the future of disaster governance in the region, supporting resilience-based and localized regional humanitarian action capable of handling and, to the extent possible, mitigating the natural disasters of tomorrow represents a crucial end in and of itself. More broadly, it lays the groundwork for progress on more fickle issues in the U.S. relationship with the region.
This article was originally published on New Perspectives on Asia from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is reprinted with permission