Open Lines of Communication

Open Lines of Communication

Disaster lesson: Civil-military dialogue saves lives


In the Indo-Pacific — the world’s most disaster-prone region — clear communication between militaries, civilian governments and humanitarian agencies can save thousands of lives. Roads are reconstructed. Relief supplies are delivered, and homeless disaster victims are housed when military assets complement the work of humanitarians and governments.

A commitment to civilian-military dialogue “is rising fast up the agenda,” said Ken Hume, civil-military relations coordinator for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies after speaking at the military exercise Cobra Gold 2018 in Thailand. “It’s really, really important to us. We are putting more resources into it.”

This dialogue is especially vital in the Indo-Pacific, which experiences earthquakes, tsunamis, tropical storms, flooding, landslides and volcanic eruptions that affect millions of people every year, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

Nepalese Soldiers unload emergency relief supplies after an earthquake in May 2015. REUTERS

More than 2 million people — an average of 43,000 per year — were killed by natural disasters in the Indo-Pacific from 1970 to 2016, according to the United Nations. In 2016 alone, disasters caused 5,000 deaths and U.S. $77 billion in economic losses in the region. The Indo-Pacific accounted for 57 percent of the global death toll from natural disasters between 1970 and 2016, and the region’s residents are five times more likely to be hit by a natural disaster than someone anywhere else in the world.

To reduce these deaths and better respond to disasters, government agencies, humanitarians and militaries have been putting together an infrastructure in recent years to improve coordination. The Regional Consultative Group (RCG) on Humanitarian Civil-Military Coordination for Asia and the Pacific was established in 2014 as a regional forum that brings together these diverse elements. Humanitarian workers also are taking an increasingly active role in military exercises.

Cobra Gold is an annual multinational and multiservice exercise co-sponsored by the Royal Thai Armed Forces and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Cobra Gold 2018 included a humanitarian assistance and disaster response exercise (HADR-X), which incorporated a HADR tabletop exercise and senior leader seminar.

The RCG in the Indo-Pacific focuses a great deal of its operational planning on the five most vulnerable countries, which are also known as UNOCHA priority countries. They are Bangladesh, Burma, Indonesia, Nepal and the Philippines. One of its first recommendations was to develop a common understanding of response practices to “enhance the predictability of the civil-military coordination mechanisms, and their respective functions, during response.”

This common understanding can speed response times, avoid duplication of effort and save lives. “For disaster response in peacetime, preparedness is the key to it,” Hume said. Having dialogue through such events as the Cobra Gold exercise creates shared knowledge, so when a flood or earthquake occurs, “we know who brings what to the party, and we understand each other’s methodology — and it works.”

In addition to knowing responders’ capabilities, experts say it is important to work out regional and international cooperation agreements before disasters strike to avoid bureaucratic delays. Issues including visas, customs clearance and overflight of a country can hamper the ability of foreign militaries to bring in life-saving equipment or even to arrive at all.

Each of the five vulnerable countries has developed its own plans for civil-military dialogue during disaster, Viviana De Annuntiis of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific wrote in a 2018 report. The plans aim to increase the “speed, volume and quality of life-saving assistance provided in the initial phase of a response and by augmenting efforts led by the affected state.”

A look at the disaster histories of the five countries shows the need for response synchronization.

Bangladesh cyclones

Bangladesh braced for the worst in November 2007 when Tropical Cyclone Sidr raked the country, killing 4,200 people and forcing the evacuation of 600,000 residents. The death toll, while tragically high, illustrates a “significant reduction in the death toll experienced in Bangladesh over the period of some four decades of severe tropical storms,” according to a 2017 case study report by the RCG, which was funded by the Australian Civil-Military Centre.

When Sidr struck Bangladesh on November 15, 2007, with sustained winds of 260 kilometers per hour, it flattened shacks, houses and schools and scattered trees throughout the country. Although local officials described the damage as worse than that caused by the 1991 Cyclone Gorky, the death toll was far lower. Gorky killed about 140,000 people near the city of Chittagong, and Cyclone Bhola on November 12, 1970, left a death toll as high as 500,000, The Associated Press reported.

A man who lives in the coastal area of Tacloban City, Philippines, repairs a wooden door amid piles of debris left by Typhoon Haiyan. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The track of Cyclone Sidr was like that of its predecessors, but preparedness had improved. Evacuees were housed in 1,800 shelters in 2007 and given emergency disaster kits that contained clothing, blankets and food. The military established medical camps to augment civil health care. To support humanitarian efforts, the Bangladesh Air Force mobilized 18 helicopters and transported relief goods. The military also cleared roads and restored communications.

Hume said that in a well-coordinated civilian-military response, the military comes in to help with critical infrastructure repairs and then scales back its response quickly as humanitarian agencies and governments continue to deal with medical care, food and rebuilding. “The military can provide infrastructure support, opening roads, building bridges, transport,” he said. “The military can provide critical capabilities.”

Following Cyclone Sidr, Bangladesh worked with the United States to build 88 new schools that also serve as shelters during emergencies. Funded by the U.S. and managed by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the schools house 200 students daily and accommodate 1,800 people during an emergency.

The U.S. also funded the construction of several Coastal Crisis Management Centers across Bangladesh. The buildings are designed to withstand an 8.0 Richter-scale earthquake and wind speeds of up to 260 kilometers per hour.

Indonesia: A volcanic situation

Situated across three tectonic plates, Indonesia has the most volcanoes of any country — 500 — with 128 still active, the RCG report stated. Typhoons, storm surges, landslides, floods and droughts also plague the country due to its location along the Pacific typhoon belt.

Indonesia averages 20 small earthquakes per day and has experienced significant forest fires over the past two decades. Between 1975 and 2015, disasters caused economic losses and damage of about U.S. $18.3 billion. In 2016 alone, disasters killed 522 people and displaced 3 million. In 2006, the Yogyakarta earthquake killed 5,778 people and caused U.S. $3.1 billion in financial losses.

The Bangladesh and U.S. governments worked together to build multipurpose cyclone shelters to protect civilians from devastating storms. U.K. Department for International Development

What is believed to be the deadliest tsunami in history started just off the coast of Indonesia. The so-called Boxing Day tsunami — a tsunami named after the holiday celebrated in some countries on the day after Christmas — was triggered by a massive quake on December 26, 2004, off the northern tip of Sumatra. The tsunami killed more than 230,000 people across 14 countries. Indonesia was the hardest-hit with more than 130,000 deaths, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

Due to the huge number of events, Indonesia has worked hard to develop mechanisms for civil-military dialogue and to adopt mechanisms “specifically for incoming foreign military capabilities in the event of a large-scale disaster,” the RCG report stated. While militaries often play a supporting role in times of disaster, the Indonesian military operates as a primary responder. The frequency and scale of disasters played a role in this decision as well as the military’s capability to rapidly deploy resources.

In 2017, the Indonesian government completed its National Disaster Response Framework, which is the country’s primary guidance document for all stakeholders in disaster response.

Burma warms to assistance

Burma is highly exposed to flooding, drought, earthquakes and cyclones. Its worst recorded disaster occurred May 2, 2008, when Cyclone Nargis killed at least 138,000 people and caused U.S. $4 billion in property damage.

Although Burma has been marked by a history of military rule and limited foreign engagement, over the past decade it has made “notable transformations in civil-military coordination” and has taken significant steps to strengthen disaster management capabilities, the RCG report said.

Burma now participates in regional HADR exercises and holds workshops with key stakeholders to improve civil-military communication.

Burma has in the past strictly limited the amount of foreign military assets allowed to deploy during a disaster, the RCG report said. It has, however, arranged to receive help from bilateral agreements with neighboring countries and other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Challenges for Nepal

With its annual rainy season and mountainous terrain, Nepal experiences frequent landslides and flooding. Its biggest danger, however, comes from its location on the boundary of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates, a great source of seismic activity.

Lessons learned from the response to the April 25, 2015, Gorkha earthquake are informing disaster-response plans throughout the region. The quake killed nearly 9,000 people and injured about 22,000. It triggered a landslide on Mount Everest that killed 21 people, making it the deadliest day in the mountain’s history.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees provided temporary housing for people left homeless by Typhoon Haiyan and also supplied emergency seeds to farmers after the typhoon destroyed their crops. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The earthquake drew an enormous international response, including assets from 18 foreign militaries and many thousands of humanitarian workers. The Red Cross and Red Crescent alone had 8,000 responders on the ground, Hume said.

In their reviews of the response, representatives of the Nepalese Army and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which sent personnel and equipment to Nepal, discussed the success of a humanitarian-military operations coordination center (HuMOCC), which was part of a new coordination strategy by the U.N.

“The HuMOCC is an emerging practice in U.N. civil-military coordination globally as well as in Asia and the Pacific,” the RCG report said. “It facilitates information sharing, task division and the coordination of operational planning between humanitarian and military actors in natural disaster responses.”

The civilian-led operations center provided assessments for operational planning, including the use of foreign militaries; offered advice on the appropriate level of foreign military support and where they should be deployed; identified benchmarks for when to transition from military to civilian assets and when to draw down and redeploy military forces.

Philippines in the eye of storms

On November 8, 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan (called Yolanda in the Philippines), a category 5 storm and the strongest tropical cyclone to ever make landfall, cut a devastating path across the central Philippines. The storm killed more than 7,300 people, affected 12.9 million people and caused U.S. $10 billion in damage. Disaster relief was provided by 57 nations, including 22 countries that deployed military personnel.

From its vantage point in the western Pacific, the Philippines is exposed to a range of natural disasters from typhoons to landslides and monsoons. The country averages nine tropical storms each year.

In a report prepared by the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance (CFE-DM) based in Hawaii, experts who reviewed the disaster response to Haiyan developed three best practices to save lives.

The German Red Cross prepares cargo to deliver to Nepal as part of the total 60 metrics tons of supplies following the earthquake in April 2015. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

A commonly understood “end-to-end” warning system prepares a nation for crisis. An end-to end system includes scientific modeling, data, technology and forecaster expertise.

Bilateral commitments executed through a multinational coordination center promote the best civilian use of foreign military assets.

When closely coordinated with the government, the private sector multiplies a nation’s surge capacity to meet the life-saving needs of the population.

A subsequent report by the CFE-DM looked at how these lessons learned from Haiyan were put into effect a year later with Typhoon Hagupit. The study, “Advances in Civil-Military Coordination in Catastrophes: How the Philippines turned lessons learned from super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) into Best Practices for Disaster Preparedness and Response (2015),” is available at

Paul Baker, the International Committee of the Red Cross delegate for military and armed groups in Southeast Asia, said it’s vital for civil-military cooperation to be simulated in exercises such as Cobra Gold. It’s a chance to develop shared knowledge when bullets aren’t flying in a conflict zone. Exercises bring the disaster-response community together to “shape people’s minds to help people understand how we are going to operate when it all goes wrong,” he said.