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Asia sets stage for disaster relief exercise with key powers

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) July 12, 2008
After much debate, Asia is finally expected to agree to hold its first civilian-military disaster relief exercise with key powers such as the United States, Russia and the European Union.

It will set the stage for real emergency response to disasters, such as the recent cyclone that ravaged Myanmar and left 138,000 dead or missing as its ruling military junta came under strong criticism for blocking aid efforts.

An upcoming ministerial meeting in Singapore of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia's top security forum, may agree to hold the disaster relief exercise among its 27 member nations as early as 2009, a US official said.

ARF senior officials agreed in May to conduct such an exercise that could pave the way for militaries of ASEAN, China, India, the United States, Russia and EU member states to help coordinate a disaster relief response.

"So, I hope that at this meeting, we can move that to the next stage -- to the point it is agreed and planning begins so that it could actually happen as early as next year," US envoy to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Scot Marciel told AFP.

"I know next year sounds like a long time away but in the ARF world, it takes a while to have consensus on everything," he said.

Asked whether the ARF foreign ministers would endorse the plan at their July 24 talks in Singapore, Marciel said, "I think it is a good possibility."

"There is genuine interest and enthusiasm for this and political will is there."

Disaster relief had been a hot topic in ARF since a tsunami swept through the region in December 2004 killing 220,000 people in a dozen countries.

The United States, Japan, Australia and India forged a loose coalition to help coordinate relief to victims of the tsunami, triggered by an undersea earthquake that struck off Indonesia.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to attend the ARF ministerial talks after skipping the annual gathering in Manila last year, an ASEAN diplomat said.

Aside from the ASEAN states of Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, ARF comprises Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, European Union, India, Japan, the Koreas, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Sri Lanka and the United States.

The ARF, the principal official forum for security dialogue in Asia, adopted a set of guidelines for disaster relief cooperation at the Manila talks last year.

It also agreed to terms of reference for a troika comprising the incoming and previous ARF chairs and a non-ASEAN member to quickly convene during an emergency for decision making.

Marciel cautioned that certain "technical issues may get into the way" of a swift ARF disaster relief exercise.

They include sensitivities such as the issue of "military of one country operating in another country," one State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"There is a need to have agreement on that (but) there has been a lot of work done already on this in ARF," Marciel said.

Asia is the world's most disaster-prone region, at the mercy of tropical storms, earthquakes, floods, landslides and other calamities.

In May, aside from the devastating cyclone in Myanmar, an earthquake in China's southwestern Sichuan province left nearly 88,000 people dead or missing and up to five million homeless.

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Exercise For Rapid Disaster Relief Using Space-Based Technologies
Bonn, Germnay (SPX) Jul 10, 2008
In Cyprus, disaster management experts of the European Union tested a satellite based system for monitoring disaster areas. On behalf of the European Commission, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) has developed a system that enables disaster relief workers to access up to date satellite images while being in the field and exchange data among themselves.

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