Disaster Management

Managing Disaster Assistance in the Heart of Asia

Managing national and trans-border disaster assistance is just one but an important part of the process to ensure countries are not weakened by the enormous impact of disasters.

The potential for trans-border disasters in the Heart of Asia region is relatively high yet the lack of coordination mechanisms in the region for receiving foreign assistance has the potential to create chaos and instability when massive disasters strike. In a region that is beset with conflict, instability and poverty, the ability to respond rapidly and effectively to the enormous challenges that mega-disasters present, is critical. Understanding the management of international assistance for each country is a key component of the disaster management cycle.


Trans-border disasters present difficult challenges given the regional sensitivities between neighbouring countries. Response processes must therefore first be guided by national mechanisms which also include procedures and rules for accepting and receiving assistance. If each country has guidelines that are regularly updated to define and guide this process, it streamlines the efforts for all stakeholders, both host nation and assisting organisations.


managdiszas.jpg Other regional countries share Pakistan’s disaster management challenges, particularly in the mountainous regions that transverse a number of countries, and the earthquake fault lines that stretch across borders. Adjoining coastlines are at risk of cyclones. The international community is frequently called upon to provide assistance when the situation escalates to a stage that is unmanageable for the affected country’s resources. Yet few countries in the region have existing guidelines for receiving and utilizing all forms of foreign assistance in major disasters. Without established procedures for decision makers, the result is usually confusion and delays that may prolong the suffering of affected communities.


When large disasters strike, countries are usually inundated with offers of international assistance but few have comprehensive rules and procedures in place for accepting and managing incoming relief. As a result, large operations often experience a coordination and logistics problems causing bottlenecks at airports, delays, wastage, and unnecessary expense in the entry and distribution of international relief.  The arrival of unsolicited and unsuitable relief items also create a headache for authorities.


The recent Nepal Earthquake in April 2015 provides a good example of how things can go wrong in receiving international relief. Despite best efforts by the authorities, the devastated country was overwhelmed in handling the incoming relief efforts. The airport was a scene of chaos and the distribution arrangements not in place. This caused significant delays in aid reaching affected communities, adding to their misery.


In recognition of the need for a common operating picture and understanding, a number of such guidelines have been developed in other regions in Asia. The East Asia Summit, a grouping of 18 East Asian countries, now has a set of guidelines to overcome these same challenges. So too does ASEAN. In the South Asia region, SAARC has a set of guidelines for the member states. And now, under the Heart of Asia Istanbul Process, a new initiative in which Pakistan plays an important role, is under way which includes a number of activities to improve disaster risk management, including a project to develop the Host Nation Support Guidelines.

This can be avoided through proper planning and development of national guidelines for receiving and utilizing response assistance so systems are in place prior to any catastrophic event. Pakistan, despite the many disasters and complex emergencies, has no such guidelines although they have been called for since 2010. Although many lessons have been learned from the mega-disasters of the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods, these are often forgotten as personnel who experienced the disaster are posted out or retired and the institutional memory is lost. Guidelines for decision-makers and regular capacity building of key personnel can make a significant difference when the time comes for action.


In recognition of the need for a common operating picture and understanding, a number of such guidelines have been developed in other regions in Asia.  The East Asia Summit, a grouping of 18 East Asian countries, now has a set of guidelines to overcome these same challenges. So too does ASEAN.  In the South Asia region, SAARC has a set of guidelines for the member states.  And now, under the Heart of Asia Istanbul Process (HOA), a new initiative in which Pakistan plays an important role, is under way which includes a number of activities to improve disaster risk management, including a project to develop the Host Nation Support Guidelines.


The HOA is a regional initiative focused on a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan in a secure and stable region by promoting regional security and cooperation through measures to build confidence and trust among countries. The Heart of Asia Istanbul Process includes 14 countries – Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and the United Arab Emirates.


Heart of Asia is supported by the Commonwealth of Australia, Canada, the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Republic of France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Republic of Italy, Japan, Norway, Republic of Poland, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as the United Nations, Economic Cooperation Organization, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, Organization for Islamic Cooperation, the European Union, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia.


A number of Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs), focused on disaster management cooperation, fighting terrorism, counter-narcotics and trafficking, improved information sharing on trade, commerce and investment, connecting regional infrastructure, and cooperation in education and science, were agreed between Participating and Supporting Countries and Organisations to facilitate the Process. Different groupings of the Participating Countries are involved in each of these components.


The Disaster Management CBM has to date, been one of the most effective activities of all CBMs.  Eight HOAcountries – Pakistan (Co-Chair), Afghanistan, Kazakhstan (Co-Chair), Iran, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, China, and India – are the Participating Countries in the HOA DM-CBM. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is the lead agency in Pakistan to drive the process forward, supported by the Technical Partner for Heart of Asia, the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center. A road map and implementation plan for action has been agreed by Participating Countries and a number of initiatives are already under way.


The components of the HOA DM-CBM include: Establishment of DRR Portal; Creation and strengthening of a regional response capacity/guidelines; Development of a Host Nation Support Mechanism; Development of guidelines for sharing cross-border early warning information; Design of simulations and drills to assess and prepare for regional coordination; Development of a regional risk picture for resilient development planning through DRR mainstreaming for response contingency planning; Review of global indicators to establish a set of regional indicators for the HOA member countries and Strengthening of research, capacity building and knowledge management.


Disaster Management projects supported by donors and organisations in the region, including Japan and China, particularly in capacity building of national disaster management organisations, have already been conducted. Another of the key components – the development of host nation support mechanisms – is now being implemented with Pakistan developing its first set of national guidelines for requesting and receiving international assistance.


The development of Host Nation Support Guidelines will guide Pakistani decision-makers (and potentially other countries in HOA) during emergency situations for smooth operations in terms of receiving and utilizing relief and response. This also assists responding countries and organisations to understand the host processes before deployment. Through extensive consultations with stakeholders, the process will identify national procedures for accepting and coordinating international disaster response. NDMA has done much to improve all aspects of disaster management and to build linkages in the Heart of Asia countries. They are partnering with a team from the Asia Disaster Preparedness Center to implement this project.


For all countries, making the decision to accept foreign assistance is a sensitive and difficult one. One of the key decisions for any government when a major disaster strikes is at what point should foreign assistance, including deployments, be requested.  Most countries prefer as their first choice, to handle the emergency from internal resources. However, in large-scale disasters like earthquakes, countries can become overwhelmed by the scale of the event and at some point need to reach out for assistance.


Governments of disaster-affected countries need to know how to identify the escalation points where local capacity and resources for each type of disaster are likely to be overwhelmed, the type of assistance that may be required, and requisite protocols. This will allow for a systematised approach to when, where, and how the international community can respectfully engage to ensure timely action and ultimately a reduction in lives lost.


The roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders and how they can effectively receive and utilize all forms of international and cross-border assistance is a key issue. For example, as it is the Pakistan military that will host foreign military assets such as helicopters and aircraft sent to assist with rescue and relief, the requirements, procedures and coordination processes must be known prior to deployment. Ensuring that military assets are provided to the country with their own support is also critical, a lesson learned from previous disasters.


The more organised a responding country is in arranging deployments, the easier it is for the host nation to manage their assistance. Lessons from foreign assistance from previous disasters, such as that provided by the Australian Medical Task Force in the 2010 floods, offer excellent examples of how responding countries can provide a ‘whole-of-government’ response team and coordinate with the Host Nation. A coordinated response from assisting countries makes it easier for host countries to manage the incoming deployment and assign areas of responsibility and provide support. This ‘whole-of-government’ approach from assisting countries is becoming more common internationally.


The humanitarian organisations participating in disaster response are guided a series of principles, standards, and guidelines to ensure best humanitarian practices are followed. Some of the most important are the Oslo Guidelines for Humanitarian Civil-Military Assistance; Sphere Standards for Humanitarian Assistance; Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) Standards; ICRC – International Humanitarian Law, and Humanitarian Principles; International Guidelines on Gender-Sensitive Approach in Disasters. Each of these is important and most humanitarian agencies abide by these, as do many governments.


However, the ground realities often create conflict and confusion between the host nation and the humanitarian organisations that often have different expectations and understanding of the situation.  In the 2010 floods, this point created delays and confusion as government and humanitarian organisations tussled over the interpretation of certain principles when applied in the local context. This is another good reason to be clear on all matters before disasters strike.


There is much to be aware of in the response process. For example, women, children, the elderly, and less abled, are the most disadvantaged during disasters and complex emergencies. When displaced, their needs require immediate consideration and understanding of cultural norms, to ensure culturally appropriate relief, particularly for women. Displaced children are at higher risk of abduction and trafficking during displacement, so child protection issues must be considered from the outset to ensure the safety of children. NDMA’s Gender and Child Cell, as well as Gender Child Cells within PDMAs, take responsibility to ensure that the needs of women and children are considered in response and relief efforts. The establishment of these Cells and the policies they have developed, has resulted from lessons from previous disasters dating back to 2005. These now must be crosscutting themes in all considerations for response and for international responders to consider in their programming.


Other types of disasters that potentially require international assistance are also included in Host Nation Guidelines. Health emergencies have very specific requirements. Pakistan has been fortunate in that it has not suffered the kind of pandemics seen in other parts of the world. As was seen in the Ebola crisis in African countries, extensive foreign assistance is needed to battle an emergency of that level.  Work has already been done by Health Ministries and the World Health Organisation to assess the potential threats, and capacity to respond.  The need for international assistance in a major outbreak is highly likely.


Other important points that need to be clarified before a disaster are those pertaining to access and security for responding organisations. These are set by the Government of Pakistan, based on the prevailing conditions at the time. These can be changed or relaxed only at ministerial level. Rules governing INGOs already exist in Pakistan and need to be understood in considering international assistance. In the past, some international organisations have just ‘turned up’. This rarely continues anything other than problems as they are unprepared, not linked into the local disaster management network, do not have local partners, and unaware of local conditions and the genuine needs of communities. Rules and guidelines are important to manage and maintain structure in receiving assistance from deploying organisations.


There is so much to consider and the process of building shared knowledge, networks, and cooperation in the region is imperative. Pakistan takes its role in the overall Heart of Asia Process and its co-leadership of the DM-CBMs very seriously. The government hosted the fifth Heart of Asia ministerial conference in Islamabad in December 2015 attended by 14 Participating States, 17 Supporting Countries and 12 International and Regional Organisations. It will also be represented at the Heart of Asia Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (AMCDRR) in Amritsar in December 2016. 


Although India withdrew from attending the SAARC Summit in Islamabad, and declined to attend the Annual Regional Consultative Committee on Disaster Management (RCC) meeting attended by 16 countries in Islamabad in October, a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and region is a key priority for Pakistan. Managing national and trans-border disaster assistance is just one but an important part of the process to ensure countries are not weakened by the enormous impact of disasters. Therefore, the government has chosen to overlook in these diplomatic slights and attend the AMCDRR in Amritsar. Building confidence and mutual understanding on disaster management with senior officials of all regional countries is much too important for Pakistan to miss such events.


There will be great challenges ahead for Pakistan and regional countries to achieve all the goals of the Heart of Asia Istanbul Process. Effective management of all aspects of major disasters – pre, during, and post – and a mutual understanding of each country for receiving assistance, will contribute much towards paving the way for a more resilient and stable region.


The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA.

E-mail: [email protected]

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