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4 Years After Tsunami, Asia Better Prepared for Disasters


Four years ago, the Asian tsunami laid bare the region's inability to cope with large disasters. As a result, governments, non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies pledged to improve disaster preparedness and response. At a time when Asia is dealing with two major disasters, Claudia Blume in Hong Kong takes a look at whether disaster preparedness has improved.

The earthquake in China's Sichuan province and the devastating cyclone in Burma are reminders that Asia is the world's most disaster-prone region. People living here are regularly at the mercy of tropical storms, earthquakes, floods, landslides and other calamities. Last year alone, Asia was hit by almost 400 natural disasters.

While countries in the region are used to disasters, the enormous devastation brought about by the tsunami in December 2004 was unprecedented. Nations were in a state of shock - not only because of the massive loss of life and property but also because of how un-prepared they had been for such a disaster. Governments and aid organizations pledged to be ready for future disasters.

Experts say much has been achieved since then. Jerry Talbot, the head of the Indian Ocean tsunami operation at the International Federation of the Red Cross in Geneva, says countries are now better prepared for disasters. He says one example is the Maldives, which did not have a disaster plan before the tsunami.

"The awareness now is very high," he said. "The clear plan that is being implemented - they are setting up structures around that plan, they are setting up regional disaster focal points. And one of the key things in the Maldives is logistics of course - how do they actually reach these small, isolated pockets of people? So this is a clear example of where there has been a major change."

Talbot says warning systems have been considerably improved. The early warnings of a possible tsunami after an earthquake on the Indonesian island of Sumatra in 2007 allowed for a rapid evacuation of low-lying areas.

"I think we can point probably to Bengkulu last year in Indonesia, where there was an early warning set up," Talbot said. "Millions of people were evacuated at a very small loss of life. If we compare that to the tsunami time we see a big change."

Immediately after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma and after the earthquake in China, countries around Asia geared up rescue teams and shipments of emergency supplies. The death toll from the two disasters already exceeds 100,000 people. More than five million people in China are homeless and two million people in Burma still need aid.

The Asian Disaster Preparedness Center - or ADPC - was set up in Bangkok in the 1980s to strengthen disaster risk management systems. After the tsunami, it became an early warning center for more than 20 countries in the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean - not only for tsunamis, but also for other disasters such as typhoons and floods.

Bhichit Rattakul, executive director of the ADPC, says his center works with governments to help them integrate disaster management into their national action plans. A number of countries have already done that, he says, and what needs to be done now is to make sure disaster management remains a long-term commitment.

"This sustainability is very important and very vital - both the commitment in the budget, from the local government as well the national government, and the commitment to work with people at local level and community level would be a very vital step to have the disaster management sustained," he said.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations pledged after the tsunami to establish systems to provide early information and support to members hit by disasters. This month, ASEAN was supposed to open a coordinating center for humanitarian assistance, which would work with international organizations to coordinate relief efforts. But the opening was postponed because of the disasters in China and Burma.

Richard Rumsey is regional emergency director for the aid organization World Vision. He says private groups, the U.N. and donors are much better now at coordinating relief efforts.

"A lot of work has been done to develop much better coordination mechanisms between us so that we talk to each other prior to a disaster happening and do contingency planning - who will do what, where, when and how - that sort of thing," Rumsey said.

Rumsey says aid organizations are quite stretched by the two disasters in Asia at the moment. But he says larger organizations such as his are prepared for multiple disasters as they have a presence in most countries in the region and enough trained staff who can quickly respond.

However, Rumsey notes that getting help to cyclone victims in Burma poses a particular challenge. His organization usually works alongside official systems in a country. But in Burma, he says, this means applying gentle pressure to a government that is wary of outsiders to bring help to affected people.

Burma's government has resisted most efforts to bring in emergency supplies and international relief workers to help the survivors of Cyclone Nargis. But aid groups and the United Nations say that aid is steadily, if slowly, flowing in to the country and they expect efforts to expand in the coming days.

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