Chaos always erupts in the immediate aftermath of any disaster — natural, man-made or accidental. Foreign militaries and humanitarian relief organizations will eagerly offer help and be ready to descend into countries where local governments have their hands full just trying to regain communication and other basic operations. For an affected state, trying to organize a barrage of help amid such pandemonium presents an array of problems, especially when leaders are simultaneously trying to assess the country’s own needs.
Coordinating and planning with partners before a disaster strikes can ease that transition to normalcy after a disaster and eliminate the duplication of efforts. The need for preregistering skills of potential responders, such as engineering or medical support, as well as bilateral agreements for offering relief have become key parts of disaster mitigation and preparedness throughout the Asia Pacific.
Amid the chaos of regrouping to rebuild after a disaster, affected states must also be aware that nefarious groups prey on countries during their time of weakness and may enter with an agenda or messages that are unacceptable to the local government. In the absence of an affected state’s capability to respond adequately to a disaster and provide adequate aid, these groups may step in to further their agendas.
Prepositioning relief supplies
Several Asia-Pacific communities have begun exploring the feasibility of warehouses to stage nonperishable food items along with first aid and prepositioning of heavy equipment that could be used to clear critical roadways and reopen airports.
“We know that the first 48 hours are terribly important,” Peter McCawley, a visiting fellow in the Indonesia Project at the Australian National University, told The New York Times newspaper in March 2010 in an article about Malaysia’s new hub for staging humanitarian relief supplies. “A lot of people die in the first 48 hours, and usually the international community is nowhere to be seen.”
Staging critical relief supplies at nearby warehouses allows a country to provide its people with immediate needs until reinforcements and sustainment elements arrive.
“When a disaster strikes, the unavailability of supplies or the slow pace in mobilizing them may cause emergency responses to be ineffective and result in increased human suffering and loss of life,” according to a report on prepositioning emergency items worldwide for the nongovernmental organization CARE. “One way in which humanitarian organizations can enhance their emergency response capacity and preparedness to natural disasters and to ensure that there is higher availability of relief supplies is by prepositioning, or stockpiling, inventory. Especially, while responding to sudden onset disasters, natural disasters that occur without a transitional phase such as earthquakes, an established prepositioning network would be most beneficial by eliminating the procurement phase of the response that will take place after the onset of the disaster otherwise. Nevertheless, structuring a prepositioning network to support emergency response for sudden onset disasters is not easy because the disasters’ magnitude, timing and location can be highly unpredictable.”
The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) and Malaysian government announced the construction of a U.N. Humanitarian Response Depot facility in Subang, Malaysia, in April 2011. It is designed to be a base of operation where international humanitarian groups can stage critical relief supplies for faster access and dissemination across the Asia Pacific when a disaster strikes. The program had been operating out of a temporary facility since June 2010, according to the WFP.
“Malaysia is proud to host a vital nerve center for the international humanitarian community,” Malaysia Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in a WFP news release. “Asia is ground zero for sudden-onset natural disasters, so the importance of this hub cannot be over-estimated. Malaysia is proud to be playing its role in ensuring that in times of crisis the people of this region get the emergency assistance they need.”
Malaysia’s government has committed to provide U.S. $1 million a year toward its operating costs, according to the WFP.
“This foundation stone represents a new ability to respond rapidly to emergency scenarios in the Asia region with lifesaving supplies — as we’ve seen only very recently with the dispatch of supplies to help the emergency response to the Japan earthquake and tsunami,” WFP Deputy Executive Director Amir Abdulla said at a ceremony announcing the new facility. “We applaud the government of Malaysia for the major investment they have made in the region’s disaster preparedness through their support of this facility.”
Staging supplies is only part of the process related to coordination. Who does what where, and when they do it, is yet another critical piece of the response effort. Mapping out those guidelines before a disaster will go a long way in eliminating confusion, especially in a region that’s riddled with disasters.
“It is a fact of life in the Asia-Pacific area that natural disasters are a growing problem,” Larry Maybee, delegate to armed and security forces for Southeast Asia and the Pacific for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told FORUM. “Militaries can get there quickly, and they are the ones who can respond. It is the civilian agencies that should, but they don’t have the capacity available.”
It takes tremendous logistical coordination to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need, especially because flooding, landslides and other debris leave roads unusable and make navigating the landscape difficult. “From a humanitarian perspective, nobody is going to be able to do everything,” Maybee said.
Humanitarian organizations look to the military for their ability to move quickly and their resources to restore electricity, clear roadways and help keep the peace. However, humanitarian groups often believe they have a deeper connection with communities and better understand their needs, Maybee said. He would like military leaders to include local and international groups in the planning process prior to troops moving into a disaster-stricken area and taking initial control of the response effort.
At the same time, the military, which is called upon to respond to a natural disaster, can capitalize on information and assistance available from humanitarian organizations already operating in the area
“We have been there long before the military gets there, and we will be there long after they leave,” Maybee emphasized. “There are networks already established, and they [militaries] need to know how to leverage that.”
When providing international aid to a community, the ICRC itself relies on the local presence of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“We go through them, and they take the lead,” Maybee said. “They’re local. That’s critical. We go in and try to support their efforts. ... While there is a place for us to cooperate, we need to be able to operate independently in our own spheres.”
Some military leaders recognize that they have a certain role to play in relief and that they must ensure their presence enhances the effort and does not interfere or disrespect an affected state’s culture.
“We have to be careful we are not imposing foreign values,” Maj. Gen. Timothy Keating, New Zealand’s Army chief, told FORUM.
It is also critical for the military to understand that it must pull out as soon as local authorities have the capacity to take over, Keating said. “It is important that we let go and begin to fade back and let the civil authorities take over,” he said. This allows for the local economy to begin a comeback by putting the local people back to work, even during the disaster response, by purchasing locally produced wood to rebuild homes, hiring local contractors and using regional doctors to care for the injured.