By Alisa Tang
JAKARTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, international aid poured into Southeast Asia, but in both disasters the 10-nation regional body ASEAN was conspicuously absent, says disaster expert Arnel Capili.
"Those were very big events that really affected the national governments of member states. The question was, where is ASEAN?" Capili said of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"The leaders talked about it, and they said, 'We must have a way to help each other. We're brothers. We're neighbors.'"
The result was the creation of a committee of national disaster staff which, in 2011, set up the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance, or the AHA Centre.
All the ASEAN nations - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - are members.
Home to more than 600 million people, Southeast Asia is the most disaster-prone region in the world, suffering earthquakes and perennial floods and typhoons. The United Nations tallied more than 500 natural disasters from 2004 to 2013, which killed more than 350,000 people.
The AHA Centre represents a growing awareness that the region - which has seen rapid economic growth over the past decade and has a combined GDP of $2.5 trillion - must help itself.
So far, the AHA Centre has focused on "quick wins" to prove its worth to member states, building up disaster preparedness, monitoring, analysis and response, Capili said.
But ASEAN has been tight-fisted about funding its own disaster response team and 22 staff, relying heavily on foreign assistance, said Capili, who used to work in the Philippines' national disaster office.
Japan gave the AHA Centre computers and other equipment; the United States provided the monitoring platform and help with planning and exercise development; Australia donated start-up cash of $2.7 million over five years through 2016.
The mandatory annual contribution from each ASEAN state is $30,000 - a total of $300,000, less than a third of the AHA Centre's annual budget of about $1 million.
"Unfortunately, the Australian support will end in June 2016, so we really need to pick up the tab and try to get member states to commit more," Capili said.
TAKING OVER FROM OCHA
Before the 2004 tsunami, many countries in the region had no special organization to handle natural disasters.
That changed as the following decade brought a series of massive floods, storms and earthquakes, but it was the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) that stepped in to manage overall disaster response in the region.
OCHA said in June that it was reducing its operations in many countries in Asia, and focusing on helping the AHA Centre build up its capacity to respond to disasters.
When a powerful earthquake struck Myanmar in 2012, Capili, a boss and a colleague led the response to the disaster, one of the first since the AHA Centre was set up.
Myanmar, emerging from half a century of military rule and isolation, had long been one of the region's most prickly countries.
The team from the AHA Centre fumbled over how to help a country sensitive to outside opinion and interference in its domestic affairs.
"We landed at the airport, we looked at each other and said, 'What do we do?' My boss said, 'I don't know.' We were grappling with the sovereignty issue," Capili said.
Three years later - after a dozen deployments to floods and typhoons, and training sessions with national disaster management officials - the Centre was asked to help last month as Myanmar struggled with widespread floods.
Three people from the AHA Centre and six from its rapid-deployment emergency response and assessment team went in.
"They said, 'AHA Centre, come in, welcome. You stay with us at the emergency operations center. Help us in the information management... so the rest of the world will know what's going on,'" Capili said.
OCHA OF SOUTHEAST ASIA?
The AHA Centre's biggest test so far was Super Typhoon Haiyan, which killed 6,300 in the central Philippines.
A day before Haiyan made landfall in November 2013, the AHA Centre sent their technical expert, with satellite phones and equipment, to Tacloban, the regional capital.
When the storm wiped out communications, it was the AHA Centre's satellite phone that the defense minister used to update the president in Manila, Capili said.
The AHA Centre is now conducting a "roadshow" to raise its profile among government officials, NGOs and the private sector.
The United Overseas Bank recently called Capili and told him they saw the AHA Centre's situation reports from Myanmar and wanted to donate money to the Centre. Air Asia, the Malaysian budget airline, offered it cargo space.
Other countries are helping too: Russia to provide technical support, and China with "a huge amount of money" to train staff and for equipment such as drones for aerial assessments.
In Sabang, on the northeast coast of Malaysia, the AHA Centre has built a stockpile of basic post-disaster needs - tents, generators and basic items for families.
It has also trained 120 people from across the region for its emergency response and assessment team, which it aims to expand with members of civil society, the Red Cross, military and health sectors.
While focusing now on member states, the Centre hopes one day to coordinate response outside the region.
"We have the resources, we have the people, we have trained people, we have all the aircraft available, we have the plan. Something happens to Nepal, ASEAN responds," Capili said.
"We've been recipient of aid for a long time, but now we are at the cusp of being able to provide support outside the region."
(Reporting by Alisa Tang, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)