The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is made up of 10 member-states: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. While ASEAN’s purposes and goals touch on various sectors, such as economics, culture, academic research, and industry, its member-states have also declared that, as a regional grouping, they will promote regional peace, stability, mutual assistance, and collaboration. All of these underpin the ASEAN efforts to better respond to natural and manmade disasters and to mitigate disaster impacts through coordinated action.
The Indian Ocean (“Boxing Day”) Tsunami of December 2004 caused significant loss and damage to Southeast Asia. Although countries outside the region also suffered, the devastation in places like Indonesia and Thailand propelled these countries and their fellow ASEAN member-states into a process to formalize and institutionalize their individual and collective approaches to disaster management (DM). Of key importance was the swift completion of negotiations to formulate the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER), the legal basis for ASEAN regional DM. AADMER was signed in 2005 and came into force after ratification in 2009.
In the past 15 years, ASEAN has prioritized building capacity to address natural hazards such as floods, drought, and typhoons. Figure 1 displays a 10-year summary of disasters that have struck the ASEAN region. The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre) classifies an event as a disaster if more than 100 persons in more than one sub-district were affected. Data from the AHA Centre’s ASEAN Disaster Information Network (ADINet) shows that 85% of disasters in the ASEAN region are caused by hydrometeorological hazards.
Floods, storms, and wind account for large proportions of displacement compared to other disasters. Floods are the most frequent type of disaster whereas wind-related disasters constitute the biggest losses in terms of economic damage, displacement, and number of affected people. ASEAN has succeeded in developing institutions not only for addressing the threat posed by natural hazards but also for building resilience into communities at risk.
ASEAN capacity is not simply static – formal agreements or summits – but, rather, it takes the form of ASEAN DM work programs and plans, regular emergency simulation exercises, and the establishment of the AHA Centre and Disaster Emergency Logistics System for ASEAN (DELSA). Although these developments have enabled ASEAN to be a central actor for addressing natural hazards, each member-state retains its own local and national processes and agencies, and it is in the coordination of these national processes that ASEAN plays a key role.
Despite progress on building common frameworks, policies, and plans for disaster risk reduction (DRR), mitigation, and response, as a whole ASEAN continues to address gaps. For example, during the response to the Coronavirus Disease – 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, many regional initiatives started out as ad hoc projects as there was no single regional entity tasked with responding to public health emergencies.
Nonetheless, as the pandemic wore on, evidence of coordinated efforts emerged. In February 2020, once it became clear that COVID-19 was going to become a significant problem, Vietnam (as ASEAN Chair) issued the Chairman’s Statement on ASEAN’s Collective Response to the Outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019. Shortly afterward, a Special ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) on COVID-19 was convened and established the ACC Working Group on Public Health Emergencies. During the Special ASEAN Summit on Coronavirus Disease 2019 in April 2020, there was a renewed push for increasing the mandate of the AHA Centre to cover public health emergencies, and the AHA Centre opened DELSA warehouses for utilization of relief stockpiles such as mobile storage units, hygiene kits, and prefabricated offices. In the end, while ASEAN solidarity was a critical component in the pandemic response, it was insufficient to overcome the deep material and technical shortfalls, and most assistance was bilateral with China, Singapore, the United States (U.S.), and Vietnam providing aid to ASEAN member-states directly. Given the successes and shortcomings observed in ASEAN’s collective DM actions in recent years, ASEAN member-states continue to invest in ASEAN capacity. Continuing efforts are focused on enhancing AHA Centre capacity, building training and certification programs for DM practitioners and professionals, and incorporating extra-regional and international partners in ASEAN planning and rehearsal processes to ensure ASEAN and its member states are integrated into the global humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) community of practice.