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The Need for Regional Disaster Diplomacy Initiatives in South Asia

India is all set to host the first ever SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) disaster management exercise – called the South Asian Annual Disaster Management Exercise (SAADMEx) – between November 23rd and 26th. For the first time, the countries of South Asia (represented in the SAARC) – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and India – have undertaken an initiative to build interoperability among the SAARC nations to carry out joint disaster response operations by cooperating and coordinating with each other. The primary focus of this exercise is to “strengthen the effective utilisation and quick deployment of search and rescue teams for emergency response” and to “set a scenario of effective activation of the national process of regional response.”

The SAARC initiative (led by India) is a welcome step at a time when there have been political tensions between some of the countries in the region – the latest being the diplomatic standoff between India and Nepal over the constitutional crisis in Nepal. Very often, foreign policy and diplomacy are seen through the realist paradigm in which ‘security dilemma’ tends to hinder cooperation (in the true sense). On the contrary, the threats or risks posed by environmental disruptions are common (even though the capacity to adapt may be totally different). What matters even more is the fact that the scientific, technical and logistical data regarding such disruptions are more or less common, and more importantly unclassified.

Environmental security is considered a ‘soft’ issue that could easily help nation states identify the common security agenda since the security of one person or state is largely contingent on others’ security. This is more pertinent in a regional setting in which geographical adjacency or proximity plays a big role. For instance, the impacts of disasters are not necessarily localised due to the interconnections with the geoeconomic and geopolitical realities of the international, more so regional, security environment. Therefore, the need to adopt ‘preventive’ and ‘adaptive’ measures against both sudden (earthquakes, tsunamis or cyclones) and gradual (climate change or droughts) changes, is becoming more and more imperative – not just for one country but the whole world. This is the primary driver of environmental security cooperation of which Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) and disaster diplomacy form an integral part.  

South Asia has witnessed many catastrophic disasters, the most recent one being the Nepal earthquake (April, 2015) that is said to have killed nearly 9,000 people – highest on record in the country. With the spurt in the scale, frequency and impact of disasters in the past couple of decades in the region, the need for beefing up disaster management and risk reduction policies has assumed further significance.

On the one hand, the South Asian countries are slowly waking up to the reality of looming disasters that might originate in one country but the ripples of which are felt across borders. The need for joint-effort was felt most strongly when the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami devastated the region. Thereafter, a string of disasters including cyclonic storms, earthquakes (such as the 2005 Kashmir earthquake that hit India and Pakistan), flooding (such as the recurrent Kosi floods and Himalayan landslides that affect India and Nepal) made the authorities realise the need to put in place a fresh set of policies to deal with frequent disasters rather than adopting a reactive approach.

Take for instance, Cyclone Aila, which hit the India-Bangladesh border in 2012. It inflicted heavy damage in the southern parts of Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal. Massive flooding, salt water intrusion and strong winds destroyed agricultural crops, contaminated fresh water resources and damaged several houses. Both India and Bangladesh have been victims of several cyclones. Since the Bay of Bengal is a cyclone-prone region, India and Bangladesh that lie in the region are likely to be affected by many more in the future. Hence, it makes absolute sense for the two countries to come together to establish a joint integrated mechanism to ‘manage’ them in the long run.

On the other hand, even when the disasters are restricted to one country in the region, the HADR activities initiated by countries such as India in its neighbourhood bring to light the need for a regional disaster risk reduction approach. When the recent earthquake struck Nepal, India was one of the first countries to ‘respond’ (within hours) and throughout the rescue-relief stage, it led a remarkable cross-border aid mission. But clearly if the process of deploying rescue teams and military assets was coordinated in a better fashion, much confusion could have been avoided.

The idea is to facilitate joint-effort among the various agencies well in advance of environmental disruption (such as disasters). Besides coordination between different agencies that deal with disasters at the national level, there is also a need for linking them with the cross-border or international agencies for pooling of resources and activities. For example, among the military agencies, this could be achieved by developing common terms of reference along with standard operating procedure (SOP) and domain awareness to enhance familiarity among the parties involved.

The best way the smaller countries (with less resources) could overcome gaps in capacities and capabilities is through concerted coordination with each other; while the bigger countries could share their resources and know-how by engendering initiatives and building mutual trust among countries – mainly by training smaller countries’ disaster management agencies in capacity building, adaptive enhancement and response mechanism. Bilaterally, India has initiated a handful of disaster risk reduction mechanisms. A case in point is the inclusion of disaster management drills in the joint exercises between the armies of India and Nepal in 2014. This was aimed at devising joint response mechanisms to prevent flooding of Kosi river.

While referring to volatility in South Asia, one tends to straightjacket it into political and border rivalries (such as the one that exists between India and Pakistan) as well as the mistrust that exists between the countries in the region. However, the environmental vulnerabilities that pervade the region do not recognise borders; and moreover, they could be the drivers of cooperation between the countries that have otherwise been hostile to each other on many other counts. The SAADMEx is being seen as a step towards boosting cooperation between the SAARC nations and in turn, the credibility of the organisation that has long been accused of being inactive and ineffective due to the political fault lines that block any cooperative proposals.


Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.