ASEAN risks missing its 'Katrina moment'

ASEAN risks missing its 'Katrina moment'
Evacuees in Tacloban boarding an RSAF C-130 transport plane for Cebu on Sunday. Singapore's air force has sent relief supplies and, at the request of the Philippine military, extended deployment of a second C-130 plane.

SuperTyphoon Haiyan, which devastated large areas of the central Philippines on Nov 7, has presented the region with what may become a textbook operation for multinational naval Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR).

Yet the awkward fact remains that the effort is being led by states outside the region.

Beyond the limited capabilities of the Philippines, ASEAN navies have been conspicuous in their absence. This is odd, considering the high-profile attention given to HADR cooperation within ASEAN itself, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meetings with regional dialogue partners.

Naval vessels and aircraft are only one part of the HADR toolkit. Yet, they are frequently the only assets on scene. They bring ready-made capabilities and personnel skill sets for damage assessment, search and rescue, as well as deliver emergency supplies such as food, water, shelter items and medical care.

Command and communications to coordinate the wider relief effort can be vital too, particularly when land-based civilian infrastructure is not up to the task. Moreover, the ability to operate autonomously offshore can mitigate the sensitivities of local populations towards a foreign military presence in the initial chaotic stages.

It can also help overcome land-based logistical and infrastructural bottlenecks.

Beyond the "first response" phase, the ability of navies to operate autonomously offshore for long periods gives them a unique advantage. A floating presence just out of sight also gives stretched relief workers and vulnerable evacuees temporary respite in a safe "rear area" that also carries its own force protection.

As was the case during the Asian tsunami in December 2004, a US aircraft carrier and its accompanying escorts were nearby. They were diverted from the South China Sea shortly after the typhoon hit.

The USS George Washington carrier group began relief operations on Nov 14, ferrying drinking water and taking stations off Samar and Leyte islands. The carrier alone can produce 1.5 million litres of fresh water daily.

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