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Asia's disaster response in spotlight at security talks

by Staff Writers
Singapore (AFP) July 21, 2008
Two years after Asia's top security forum vowed to develop guidelines for joint disaster relief, precious little has been done and hundreds of thousands more have died in calamities around the region.

The Myanmar cyclone, China quake and Philippines ferry sinking have catapulted disaster preparedness back to the top of the agenda of the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) talks in Singapore on Thursday.

Ministers from the 27-member group -- including the United States, China, Russia, the European Union and the ASEAN countries -- are expected to discuss a joint civilian-military disaster relief exercise, among other measures.

Aid workers said that while the forum was essentially a confidence-building talking shop, the recent spate of disasters and the threats posed by climate change should galvanise it into action.

"I'm optimistic that there can be some small steps, and even if it's just about disaster risk reduction and preparing countries in the region, that would be a good thing," said Ashley Clements of international aid group World Vision.

ARF foreign ministers adopted a statement on disaster management and emergency response when they met in 2006, two years after the Asian tsunami killed some 220,000 people.

Among other things, the agreement called for "operating procedures" to be drawn up on civilian and military cooperation for humanitarian operations, and an inventory of military transport assets available in emergencies.

Thursday's meeting should show what has been done to follow up on that pact, and how the forum wants to move ahead in the aftermath of the Myanmar and China disasters, which together left more than 208,000 people dead or missing.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was criticised by aid groups for not doing enough to pressure its military-run member Myanmar to open its doors to foreign relief workers after Cyclone Nargis hit in early May.

Its own assessment teams took weeks to arrive in the disaster zone, but the bloc's work to bridge the gap between the secretive junta and the international aid community has since won over many of the critics.

The Post-Nargis Joint Assessment, a report on the humanitarian conditions in storm-hit southern Myanmar by ASEAN, the United Nations and the Myanmar junta, is due to be released Monday at a meeting of ASEAN ministers here.

"ASEAN did play a pretty important role in Myanmar in terms of creating the humanitarian space," said World Vision Asia-Pacific spokesman James East.

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan was the driving force behind the bloc's Myanmar response, describing it as a "baptism" in terms of leading an aid effort.

Even so, he said in Manila earlier this month that the region had to do more to be "prepared, coordinated and equipped" to confront the next disaster.

The bloc agreed in 2004 to establish a joint humanitarian relief centre in Jakarta, but that is still not in place. A 2005 pact on disaster management also has not been fully implemented.

On the ARF level, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in June that disaster management "might be better organised regionally."

A US official said earlier this month that the disaster relief exercise could be held as early as next year if there is agreement in Singapore.

But analysts said the ARF could potentially save more lives by simply training local officials and community leaders in basic techniques of emergency response.

"Even where you cannot get large-scale foreign humanitarian assistance into the disaster, it is possible to use existing civil society networks... to distribute food and water," said Australian Council for International Development executive director Paul O'Callaghan.

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Thousands evacuated as storm hits China: state media
Beijing (AFP) July 18, 2008
China evacuated 360,000 people and called 61,000 fishing boats back to shore as Tropical Storm Kalmaegi, which killed at least six people in Taiwan, hit the east coast, state media reported Friday.

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