One of the key challenges in building the ASEAN community is coming up with tangible outcomes that benefit the people directly. This is a tall order, since many of ASEAN’s objectives are at the regional level. Realization of ASEAN’s goals and aspirations will happen only when each member nation converts regional commitments into national policies and practices.

The key issues here are follow-up and implementation. ASEAN has over 300 agreements in place. It remains to be seen whether the member states will be able to implement them all by its self-imposed deadline of Dec. 31, 2015.

This seems like a daunting challenge. However, recent progress in regional disaster management offers interesting insights on ASEAN’s readiness to take up the tasks ahead.

Disaster risk reduction and management are major concerns for ASEAN, considering the region’s vulnerability to natural disasters. Earthquakes, typhoons and floods, are among the perpetual threats
facing ASEAN countries.

In November, a magnitude-6.8 earthquake struck Mandalay and Sagaing provinces in Myanmar. Most recently Typhoon Bopha created havoc in Mindanao in the Philippines. Both caused severe damages and loss of life.

ASEAN acted quickly. Spearheading the action was the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA center). The center was established by ASEAN leaders at the Bali Summit in November 2011.

From its base in Jakarta, the center deployed emergency rapid assessment team (ERAT) to Mandalay and Mindanao.

Within a week after the earthquake struck Mandalay, the ERAT delivered over 250 multipurpose tents and 70 rolls of tarpaulin sheets to aid local citizens coping with the destruction of many houses, schools and hospitals.

In Mindanao, the team conducted a rapid needs assessment. The dispatch of emergency goods is

A key to the swift action by the AHA center is the ASEAN regional emergency stockpile, located in Subang, Malaysia.

The regional stockpile was awaiting formal inauguration when the disasters occurred. Nonetheless, it went into full operation and has performed well.

In brief, through the AHA center and the regional emergency stockpile system, ASEAN has demonstrated a promising competence in regional disaster management.

Several factors contributed to ASEAN’s success. First, ASEAN has had ample dose of natural disasters. Some of the recent, most catastrophic disasters hit ASEAN countries directly, e.g. the Indian Ocean in Aceh in 2004, Typhoon Nargis in Myanmar in 2008. This led to an accumulation of experiences in managing natural calamities.

Second, ASEAN has proper region-wide mechanisms and procedures in place. This is epitomized in the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER).

Signed in July 2005 and coming into force in December 2009, AADMER is the umbrella framework that guides ASEAN’s concerted actions in the event of a disaster.

Under the purview of the AADMER, ASEAN has worked out necessary measures for improving its preparedness and response. This includes standard operating procedures, disaster information sharing and communication network, and regional emergency stockpile and logistics systems.

The AHA center is the hub of these activities and facilitates operational coordination.

Third, ASEAN receives strong support from various dialogue partners. Among them, Japan contributed significantly to development of the AHA center.

The center’s state-of-the-art IT facilities and systems were provided by Japan. To ensure seamless and uninterrupted connectivity between the national disaster management offices (NDMO) of the 10 ASEAN member states, Japan has provided similar IT systems to NDMO of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

The ASEAN regional emergency stockpile and logistics system in Subang also receives generous support from Japan, totaling more than US$11 million.

The challenge for the AHA center is ensuring sustainability of such cooperation. Disaster operations are time-sensitive and expensive. At stake are the lives of the people in disaster-stricken areas. Resource and expertise mobilization is therefore a standing priority to allow the AHA center to execute its mandate smoothly.

ASEAN and Japan share a natural bond given similar experiences in facing natural disasters. Those ties have now reinforced by Japan’s initiative for a comprehensive disaster management cooperation plan covering utilization of satellites for disaster management to develop early warning systems for remote, poor areas across ASEAN.

For its part, ASEAN continues working out technical preparations and operational guidance relating to disaster preparedness and responses as stipulated by the AADMER.

Combination of the above proves effective in bringing about tangible and quick actions that benefit the people. This raises hope that a people-oriented, disaster-resilient ASEAN community is indeed in the pipeline.

ASEAN will need more success stories and conclusive proof in its community-building endeavors. Its success in regional disaster management can hopefully be a catalyst for other areas being pursued.

The writer is director of the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund (JAIF) management team at the ASEAN Secretariat. The views expressed here are his own. –AKP Mochtan, Jakarta