Southeast Asia is one of the most regions prone to natural disasters. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific estimates that natural disasters drain the region of more than $86.5 billion in average annual economic losses. The destruction in the Philippines following Typhoon Rai in December 2021 and historic flooding in Malaysia during the recent monsoon season are reminders of what the region stands to lose due to the impacts of climate change. increase the frequency and intensity of these devastating events.
In a region plagued by natural disasters, disaster management has become a high point of regional cooperation and engagement with extra-regional partners. The need to prepare for future natural disasters highlights the importance of building on this foundation, with greater emphasis 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 efforts, which align with Washington’s capabilities and goals for the region.
Major disasters have catalyzed a range of regional frameworks and institutions for natural disaster management, primarily through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A regional humanitarian community emerged following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which cobblestone the way to the Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER). Ratified by all ASEAN members in 2005, this legally binding regional instrument for disaster management has been 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 strengthened its leadership position in disaster governance. More specifically, he established in 2011, the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Center (AHA Center) 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. The coordination of extra-regional assistance in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami provided ascend to the Tsunami Core Group made up of the United States, India, Japan and Australia. Those countries joined forces once again through the Tripartite Core Group in the response to Cyclone Nargis. This body has helped ASEAN build a bridge between the international community, the region and the Myanmar state. Disaster management continues to play a consistent, albeit moderate, role in U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia through military, financial, and technical assistance, including at the AHA Center, which receives nearly two-thirds of its funding from Japan, the United States and other outside governments.
Regional approaches to disaster-related humanitarian action supported by external partners have demonstrated their greatest value not only in bringing together and coordinating diverse actors, but also in providing disaster information. ASEAN Disaster Resilience Outlook (ADRO) 2021 Survey Respondents Circulated Among Disaster Management Experts in the Region class 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 Disaster Management Scientific Platform and the Disaster monitoring and response system. The Overseas Development Institute Noted that despite institutional and resource constraints, the AHA Center demonstrated its competence in its response to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, in which it provided technical support for early warning and established critical communication links between local governments, national and international.
As climate change increases the risk of more destructive weather-related hazards, mobilizing and coordinating regional resources and tools once a disaster occurs is no longer sufficient for effective disaster management. However, respondents to the ADRO survey identified disaster resilience and disaster prevention and mitigation as ASEAN’s greatest weaknesses in disaster management. The ASEAN Vision 2025 on Disaster Management, approved in 2015, recognize this gap and engages the region in humanitarian action based on resilience.
The United States can leverage its assistance to the region to strengthen the implementation of this vision. Between 2005 and 2017, only 3.8% of disaster-related international development assistance concentrate on disaster prevention and preparedness. In 2020, only $9.8 million of the total $1.5 billion in U.S. foreign aid obligations to Southeast Asian countries supported this goal. However, channeling funds into early and preventive disaster management is a wise investment, as every dollar spent on disaster risk reduction can to register $4 to $7 in response.
More explicit and deeper links between US support for regional disaster-related humanitarian action and its climate action programs in Southeast Asia can maximize the impact of this investment. At the special United States-ASEAN summit held in Washington on May 12-13, the United States describe its intention to strengthen climate action engagement with the region through several initiatives, such as plans to launch a US-ASEAN Climate Solutions Center 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 take into account the interaction between climate change and natural disaster-induced humanitarian crises.
How and by whom this assistance is provided is also increasingly important. 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 leaders. While regional approaches to disaster-related humanitarian assistance in Southeast Asia remain largely state-centric, ASEAN has rhetorically kissed the need to “look beyond national capitals” in its engagement in disaster management. 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 coaching future leaders in disaster management in the region, and the AADMER partnership group, which engaged civil society organizations in the efforts of the AHA Center. As the United States Agency for International Development has spear an ambitious Localization program under the leadership of Administrator Samantha Power, alignment of Localization commitments and knowledge sharing of Localization strategies are areas ripe for U.S.-ASEAN collaboration.
Amid the more sensitive issues of regional cooperation and U.S.-ASEAN relations, including conflict-induced crises like the one currently unfolding in Myanmar, managing natural disasters is not always a priority in Washington. However, it has long served as the underlying impetus and low-hanging fruit for regionalism in Southeast Asia and its engagement with extra-regional partners. Coordination and convening mechanisms and the trust forged through collaboration in disaster management establish a basis for cooperation in larger and more challenging areas. After all, today’s Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue, or “Quadrilateral”, native in the Tsunami Core Group and now addresses a host of security and non-security issues.
As Southeast Asia and the United States look to the future of disaster governance in the region, support regional resilience-based and localized humanitarian action that can manage and, where possible , mitigating tomorrow’s natural disasters represents a crucial end in and of itself. More broadly, it lays the groundwork for progress on more volatile issues in US relations with the region.
This article has been originally published on New Perspectives on Asia from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is reproduced with permission