Disaster Lessons

By John Holmes
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Three months have passed since Cyclone Nargis and an accompanying tidal surge swept across Myanmar's fertile Irrawaddy Delta region, claiming nearly 140,000 lives and devastating the livelihoods of many more people. All told, some 2.4 million people were seriously affected by Nargis, ranking it among the worst cyclones in Asia in the past 15 years and the worst in Myanmar's history.

I recently completed my second trip to Myanmar, where I was again sobered by the immensity of the tragedy but was also cautiously hopeful about relief efforts. In May, government reluctance to allow international aid workers into the affected region sparked a storm of international criticism.

We have made a lot of progress since then. Touring the delta by helicopter, I could see that many houses had been repaired one way or another. There was agricultural activity in the fields and commercial activity on the waterways. Schools are in session, in tents if not permanent classrooms. And hundreds of international aid staffers are now working in the delta. The promises about access made to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when he saw Myanmar's head of state, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, in late May have essentially been kept.

Without question, the international response has helped save lives and reduce suffering. While it is impossible to be sure all survivors have been reached, I am confident that the overwhelming majority have received help, even if many still need a good deal more.

Crucially, a much-feared second wave of deaths from starvation or disease has not happened -- no small achievement, given that 75 percent of hospitals and clinics in the affected areas were destroyed. The people's resilience has been remarkable, as was the degree of help and solidarity from individual citizens and organizations in Myanmar.

Challenges remain, of course, including over issues such as aid exchange rates, and it would be unwise to gloss over them. But the main priority now is to help remote communities further and to ensure that assistance is continued systematically until all concerned can feed themselves and rebuild their lives.

So, what can we learn from this crisis?

First, no nation, rich or poor, can go it alone when confronted by a natural disaster of the magnitude of a Cyclone Nargis. It would have been much better, not least for the survivors, if the government of Myanmar had recognized the value of an international presence from the start. I encourage Myanmar's leaders to continue down the path of cooperation, including in response to other humanitarian challenges, based on the universal principle of the impartial provision of aid.

Second, we must stay focused on the goal: assisting people in crisis. From the first, the aid operation in Myanmar -- as is true everywhere we work -- had to be about helping vulnerable people in need, not about politics. In this post-Iraq age, I am concerned that humanitarians are often pressured to choose between the hammer of forced intervention and the anvil of perceived inaction. Was there a realistic alternative to the approach of persistent negotiation and dialogue that we pursued? I do not believe so. Nor have I met anyone engaged in the operations who believes that a different approach would have brought more aid to more people more quickly.

This is not to say that there can never be a role for humanitarian intervention, even in natural disasters. But it must be the last resort, when all else has been tried and the only alternative is death and suffering on a mass scale.

Third, Nargis showed us a new model of humanitarian partnership, adding the special position and capabilities of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to those of the United Nations in working effectively with the government. This may prove the most important -- and, I hope, enduring -- lesson of the cyclone response, with implications for how we respond, anywhere, in the future.

ASEAN's leadership was vital in building trust with the government and saving lives. In recent years, ASEAN members have significantly stepped up participation in the humanitarian arena. Given that eight of the 10 worst natural disasters last year occurred in Asia, this represents a lifesaving investment, where the United Nations is helping to build local capacity.

Fourth, Nargis demonstrated once again the importance of disaster risk reduction and preparedness. Simple, low-cost measures -- local evacuation plans, shelters, community early-warning systems -- have saved tens of thousands of lives in neighboring Bangladesh when it has been faced with similarly devastating cyclones. We need to help the people of Myanmar strengthen their resilience and reduce their vulnerability. Building back better, to minimize future disaster risks, is a top priority.

In coming years we can expect to see more, and more intense, weather-related natural disasters as the effects of climate change become more pronounced. We must be better prepared and must cooperate as neighbors and an international community in meeting this challenge. The need for effective global humanitarian partnerships has never been more apparent -- or more necessary.

The writer is U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company