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Linda Constant Headshot

International Efforts Towards Climate Change: 2004 Tsunami to 2013 Haiyan

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"The climate change battle will be won or lost in Asia," a former White House national security director recently told me during a roundtable on current Asia-Pacific geopolitics. According to him this is a generally accepted concept in most US policy discussions when it comes to the environment, resources, and capacity building issues that primarily arose after the devastating 2004 tsunami. While climate change is clearly an international concern, Asia's massive population, unique resources, and geography pose acute challenges to the global environment.

The Indian Ocean tsunami, triggered by a massive 9.0 quake near Sumatra, unleashed a relentless procession of airliner-speed waves that left more than 200,000 people dead and millions missing or homeless in 14 countries. Typhoon Haiyan, while destructive, fortunately has not proved to be as catastrophic as the tragedy of 2004. Nearly ten years later, it remains imperative to recall the efficacy of aid efforts in 2004 and how they can be improved for future scenarios.

In 2004, countries in the region that were hard hit by the tsunami called upon the United States for assistance. The US response was to form a "Tsunami Core Group" of local nations--India, Japan, Australia, and the US --that acted as the central agency for coordinating on-the-ground assistance.

The set up was quite informal, primarily consisting of evening conference calls and emails between ministers and secretaries of the respective countries, yet resulted in a rapid deployment of more than 40,000 troops and humanitarian responders. The US supplied "12,600 Defense Department personnel, 21 ships (including the 1,000 bed Mercy hospital ship), 14 cargo planes, and more than 90 helicopters" towards the relief effort, along with huge personnel and funding contributions from the other core group states, according to Ambassador Marc Grossman (who chaired the core group agendas).

The fortuitous outcomes of the 2004 relief efforts could not have come to fruition without the consequential diplomacy that ultimately arose out of sheer emergency. Countless lives were lost during the actual official conference calls, despite the conversations being strictly limited to 40 minutes and three agenda issues. While emails were being read and sent across the Pacific Ocean, countless citizens in over a dozen nations witnessed their livelihoods wash up and rot away. Despite the rapid quadrilateral planning and "emergency diplomacy" combined with major NGO policy executions, we still do not know how many lives were lost during these important efforts. The region was simply not prepared.

International preparation for disasters, both natural and manmade, are not the forte of even allied governments, as it turns out. And with the backdrop of a stagnating world economy in recent years, most nations have seemingly little impetus to channel funding into programs or projects that would serve impending--yet inevitable--environmental catastrophes.

Calamities that should be expected sooner or later are unfortunately dealt with on a first-come, first-serve basis. Instead of having specific agencies set up in their respective regions to streamline the local governments and disaster relief NGOs, all parties must scramble to get their plans in order through last-minute bureaucracy. We currently have a system where a tragedy must fully occur before we really address it even if there has been a documented historical pattern of such incidents, such as the ancient stone slabs that warned residents of tsunamis near Fukushima, Japan.

Despite the great relief efforts in 2004, one of the most noticeable outcomes is that the model of the "Tsunami Core Group" was never institutionalized. The task force was clearly able to efficiently organize and execute their work under enormous pressure, ultimately resulting in the lack of a need for such a group once the relief efforts successfully ran their course. But this efficacious undertaking has not yet been used by stakeholders to create a similarly permanent working group, not even during the "downtimes" when a program could conceivably be properly set up without worrying about loss of life in real time. Simply put, it is counterintuitive to wait until an emergency occurs before setting up a preparatory methodology for future environmental adversity.

Asia (particularly China) is indeed a hot button issue when it comes to the environment, but the most urgent concerns also involve communities and states that are literally located on the front lines of climate change. As the lowest lying islands on the planet, the Maldives comes to mind as does ousted President Mohamed Nasheed's valiant efforts to promote collective action on climate change in 2009. Last week President Obama appointed Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie to serve on the President's Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience in order to advise on key actions the federal government can take towards local preparedness.

This week in response to Haiyan, numerous humanitarian relief groups in the Philippines have accomplished tremendous feats despite growing physical and emotional challenges as the days wear on. Many of them are permanent organizations in their own right, but they often lack the resources to effectively function in the midst of an emergency that is, understandably, right in their backyard.

Though preparation for future environmental issues does not often appear as urgent as matters such as crowded schools, unkempt roads, or growing unemployment, such affairs are the looming threats to all of the former. Environmental health is the essential backbone to our present day infrastructure, a foundation that too often yields to other dependent concerns.