Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Building the regional response to natural disasters

Tsunamis, earthquakes, floods in the Philippines and now bad floods in Southern India. I commented in passing in Samoa, Indonesia and China 

In a world where improved transport and communications have drawn the mutually incomprehensible into closer contact, I think that it pays us to remember that the provision of mutual support - support without strings - in times of trouble is the best way of building bridges.

Governments are building the mechanisms required to ensure more effective mutual support. Australia now has so many different national groups within the country, so many Australians living overseas in so many countries, that nearly every natural disaster anywhere in the world affects at some Australians.

There is a natural tendency in Australia to think that the Australian Government must first look after its own citizens. There is nothing wrong with this, but we also have to recognise and think through what it means to be a global citizen. Part of this lies in the provision of support to others. We also have to recognise, I think, that we cannot provide support to all.

This does not mean that we should not contribute to help with disasters wherever they occur. However, to my mind it does mean recognising that our first priority should be our neighbourhood where the help we can provide can be most focused and have the greatest impact. Beyond this, we should focus our international efforts on developing mechanisms that will facilitate cooperation among different neighbourhoods.

I have in mind here the Australian experience with natural disasters where our volunteer tradition is still very strong. The first line of response has to be local - this is equivalent to the provincial or country response. As the disaster unfolds, broader state and national coordinating and support mechanisms kick in. This is equivalent to the regional response. Then, if necessary, support is sought/offered from further afield. This is equivalent to the global response. All this happens quite automatically.

Of course, as with the Victorian bush fires, events can overwhelm. But there no Australian equivalent to what happened with Cyclone Katrina. There, and I remember the email traffic at the time very well, the response was to my mind atomistic.

My point is that we need to keep on building the natural disaster response patterns so that there is automatic response in depth.

In the Indonesian case, both the Australian and state governments went into planning mode before the request for help was received from Indonesia. We could respond quickly. The issue here, however, is how we might have responded even faster.

I suspect that there are things we could have done faster, given that time is of the essence in these types of events.

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