A critical disconnect: The role of SAARC in building the disaster risk management capacities of South Asian countries

Editor’s Note: This paper examines the role of regional organizations in supporting disaster risk management across South Asia. As this paper went to press, a 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal, the most powerful in 80 years, killing at least 7,000 people and affecting an additional eight million. This paper does not endeavor to assess the full extent of earthquake losses or the emergency relief efforts still unfolding in Nepal at the time of its publication. Instead, it maps out the national architecture and systems that were in place in the disaster-affected country and across the sub-region prior to the disaster.

Regional cooperation in South Asia is not easy. The history of the sub-region, most notably influenced by the partition of India in 1947, political sensitivities and the trust deficit between states, and the vast disparity between the size and wealth of the different countries make it hard to find mutual ground on a host of important trans-boundary issues. Regional cooperation for disaster risk management (DRM) is no exception.

While the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) developed a Comprehensive Framework on Disaster Management and Disaster Prevention in 2005 and established a number of SAARC centers, chiefly the SAARC Centre for Disaster Management and Preparedness (SDMC) to implement the framework,[1] progress to build the DRM capacities of South Asian states through regional cooperation has been slow. Over the last decade, SDMC has produced regional guidelines, conducted technical trainings, and developed a mechanism for collective emergency response for ratification by states. However, despite these and other SAARC efforts, there is little sense that this regional support has been absorbed by member states in a way that influences their DRM national capacities in any meaningful way. Unfortunately, delicate inter- and intra-state politics are so compelling within the South Asian context that they continually draw national attention away from the sustained focus required to make progress on DRM issues.

Further to the thorny political challenges that hamper cooperation in the sub-region, it has to be noted that SAARC DMC, on its own merits, has never been considered a particularly effective institution. Although there was some initial enthusiasm for the SDMC in the early years, any cautious hopes about what it could achieve seem to have been replaced by widespread cynicism about its ostensibly non-existent influence. DRM stakeholders in the region recognize that SAARC DMC conducts some capacity-building activities for states, but these efforts are seen as superficial, having negligible impact on the day-to-day activities and planning of states. It is important to remark that not a single DRM government official interviewed for this study was able to comment on any SDMC activities that had provided critical support to their national capacity building efforts. International stakeholders who engaged in this study were equally at a loss when it came to SAARC DMC, unable to describe much of what the Centre does even though they had much to say about other risk reduction, preparedness, and response activities in support of national governments.

While SDMC has certainly produced some useful guidelines and conducted what seem like important technical DRM trainings, it is evident that the Centre has lacked the requisite vision and political support of its members to fulfill its mandate. Rather than homing in on specific DRM activities and seeing them through from start to finish, it seems that SAARC DMC has dabbled in too many areas at once, devoting insufficient attention to what its comparative advantage is or should be. At the same time, the Centre has perhaps been negatively influenced by the hyperactivity of ASEAN to the East, in the sense that it has aspired to mimic many of the elements of the Southeast Asian regional cooperation for DRM rather than taking a more tailored approach to its potential added value in its own regional context. Finally, it goes nearly without saying that SDMC has been victim to many of SAARC’s more widespread regional integration failures. As in other fields, SAARC’s DRM engagement has been much about pleasing the political whims of different member states through “a little of this and a little of that” rather than acting boldly and purposefully to develop regional systems and processes that can facilitate long-term resilience to disasters.

Notwithstanding the slow progress of SAARC in the area of DRM national capacity building, it would be wrong to write off the potential role of the organization completely as there are certainly reasons to be supportive of SAARC’s continued engagement in this area. For one, it should be noted that nothing happens fast in South Asia, and SAARC has only been involved in regional cooperation for DRM for a relatively short period of time compared to other Asian regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Pacific Community (SPC). Second, despite the cynicism surrounding multilateral work on trans-boundary issues in South Asia, there continues to remain a considerable level of expectation – if perhaps not yet the requisite commitment by member states – for a regional DRM approach. Given its perceived underperformance thus far, continuing discussions about the potential of SDMC by regional stakeholders is perhaps surprising, but certainly undeniable. Against difficult odds, South Asian member states and international onlookers would still very much like to see SAARC DMC function effectively, most notably because the sub-region is simply in too dire need of a trans-boundary approach to disaster risk to throw in the towel now.

It is the purpose of this study to consider the different elements of SAARC DMC’s efforts over the last decade and to assess their impact in supporting the national capacities of member states. This study evaluates the development of DRM national architecture and activities in two case study countries in South Asia, namely India and Nepal, to get a better sense of where these countries stand with regard to DRM capabilities and to understand what role, if any, regional approaches have had in reinforcing national systems. As this paper went to press, a 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal, the most powerful in 80 years, killing at least 6,000 persons (and possibly as many as 10,000) and affecting an additional eight million. This paper does not endeavor to assess the full extent of earthquake losses or the emergency relief efforts still unfolding in Nepal at the time of its publication. Instead, it maps out the national architecture and systems that were in place in disaster-affected country and across the sub-region prior to the disaster.[2]

The larger objective of this work is to compare the actions of SAARC in South Asia with the actions of regional organizations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands regions. This studyis a follow-up effort to a more general analysis about the work of regional organizations in DRM globally called In the Neighborhood: The Role of Regional Organizations in Disaster Risk Management that was published by Brookings Institution in 2013 and a complement to more detailed sub-regional analyses of DRM capacity building work in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. It is the hope that a thorough study of the relationship of regional organizations with member states, and with national disaster management agencies in particular, can offer greater insight into what regional activities are useful to national governments in their efforts to prevent and respond to disasters.

[1] Other SAARC centres charged with the implementation of the SAARC DRM agreement are the SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre (Male) and the SAARC Meteorological Research Centre (Dhaka). The SDMC is located in New Delhi. See SAARC Comprehensive Framework on Disaster Management, 2005.

[2] To this end, it should be mentioned that reviewers from Nepal were unable to offer their feedback on this paper as a result of the emergency. Any inaccuracies are the responsibility of the author and will be corrected as and when Nepal country experts are able to engage.