Preparing for disaster in Southeast Asia

As relief efforts continue after Typhoon Haiyan crushed the Philippines, officials get ready for the next calamity.

Typhoon Haiyan's impact led to more than 5,700 deaths and four million displaced in the Philippines [AFP]
Typhoon Haiyan's impact led to more than 5,700 deaths and four million displaced in the Philippines [AFP]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Only a few weeks ago, Belkacem Benzaza was worrying whether he’d run out of room for supplies in the emergency response depot he manages in the suburbs of the Malaysian capital. Soon after the Philippines was hit by an earthquake, followed swiftly by Typhoon Haiyan – the strongest storm ever to make landfall.

Now the warehouse – which started operations only a year ago and stores emergency goods for the United Nations, governments and relief agencies – is nearly empty.

“We were concerned about space,” Benzaza said as he showed Al Jazeera around barren shelves. “We have about 5,000 square metres here and 2,000 square metres more in Sungai Buloh [a nearby town] and that was nearly full, but then we had the Bohol earthquake and Typhoon Haiyan. This was the first big emergency for us.”  

More than 5,700 people died and four million were forced from their homes when Haiyan swept through the central Philippines a month ago, generating a massive tsunami-like surge of water that destroyed nearly everything in its path. It was the 25th storm to hit the Philippines this year.

A photograph of a missing mother and child in Khao Lak, Thailand. A tsunami killed more than 220,000 people in 11 Indian Ocean countries on December 26, 2004 [AP]

Some 70 percent of the world’s disasters take place in Asia, where the volatile Pacific “Ring of Fire” leaves communities particularly vulnerable to disaster.

Preparing for ‘nightmares’

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has, since November 2011, been trying both to prepare better for disasters and respond more effectively to emergencies.

The Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management – or the AHA Centre – is at the heart of the initiative. Based in Jakarta, Indonesia, it aims to improve the flow of information across the 10 states whenever disaster strikes and ensure a coordinated and effective response from the different countries.

Said Faisal, a former finance expert who cut his teeth in disaster management following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that ploughed through Aceh, says he’s now on a “journey of different disasters”. He also spent a year in Myanmar helping with recovering efforts after Cyclone Nargis in 2008 devastated the Irrawaddy Delta. The government there was initially reluctant to accept outside help.

“Understanding logistics is very important,” explained Said Faisal, executive director of the AHA Centre, on the phone from Jakarta. “When it comes to a disaster, it’s the logistics that make things worse. If they are not well managed, we will have a nightmare.”

For Haiyan, AHA deployed one person to the city of Tacloban ahead of the typhoon so it would be in a position to restore vital communications as quickly as possible. A team was also sent to the Philippine capital, Manila, to work with government officials there. Within 48 hours, Said says, people and supplies were already on their way to the disaster zone.

No one really understood what the storm surge involved. Everyone was a victim, including those who were supposed to respond.

- Jean-Michel Piedagnel, former Medecins Sans Frontieres emergency worker

Jean-Michel Piedagnel, a former Medecins Sans Frontieres emergency worker who now runs an independent consultancy, noted there’s a “political will” within Asean to address shortcomings in regional disaster relief. The challenge is to deal with member states’ differing levels of development.

Real-life disaster

Back in Kuala Lumpur, the UN depot is managed by the World Food Programme but is funded almost entirely by the Malaysian government, which also made available the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s C-130 transport planes to take relief to Tacloban within days of the disaster.

Behind the warehouse, which overlooks the Subang airport runway, four giant hangars are under construction. They’ll house A400M military transport planes, with the first to arrive as Malaysia takes its seat as chair of Asean in 2015.

Despite the initiatives and Asean’s determination to improve disaster response, there have been criticisms, directed mostly at the Philippines government, that the relief effort was too slow.

Even as air forces from the Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and other Asean members delivered vital supplies, it was the United States, Britain and Japan who deployed ships, and dominated the headlines.

“Having made humanitarian and disaster relief the centrepiece of recent defence cooperation exercises, if Asean does not respond more convincingly to the real-life disaster in the Philippines it risks missing its ‘Hurricane Katrina moment’,” noted Euan Graham, a senior fellow with Singapore’s RSIS in a recent commentary. “Haiyan may have passed, but its damaging potential remains.”

Said acknowledged the criticism, admitting that each disaster is, in its own way, a learning experience. Those who’ve worked in the emergency response field say Haiyan was a challenge by its very nature.

“This typhoon was exceptional,” says Piedagnel. “The local authorities were fairly well prepared, but were overwhelmed. No one really understood what the storm surge involved. Everyone was a victim, including those who were supposed to respond. It’s easy to criticise, but we should not underestimate what it means to wake up and to have everything around you destroyed.”

Aceh, Indonesia after the deadly 2004 quake-tsunami [AP]

‘Chaotic, confusing and complex’

At the warehouse, the contents of Asean’s “family kit” – inspired by the Swiss Red Cross but “Asianised” with the addition of items such as flip-flops and prayer mats – is on display in the warehouse.

Beside it is a shelter kit with a hoe, spade and tarpaulin so survivors can have somewhere to live in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

A few of the kits remain on the shelves, the Asean logo stamped on their side, ready for despatch, next to supplies for NGOs such as Shelterbox, part of a stockpile that is set to grow as the region makes sure it’s ready for the next, inevitable, emergency.

“A disaster is always a challenge,” said AHA’s Said. “The environment is always chaotic, confusing and complex. That’s why we call it a disaster. The challenge is the number of disasters and the level of the disaster. We never know how big or where the next one will be. It’s a constant effort to prepare and improve.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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