South Asian Disasters and the Need for Regional Cooperation

Authors: Harsh Mahaseth and Nishtha Gupta*

International cooperation and multilateralism have become indispensable tools in an increasingly complex world. South Asia, a region abundant and lank is defined by its geography and culture, demanding regional coordination and cooperation to address insecurities while building capacities. It comprises eight culturally copious nations, each with its own political ideology, social beanfeasts and economic identity. Susceptibility and vulnerability to natural disasters is another mutuality among these nations, predictions being over 246 million south Asians at risk only from cyclones. Yet, disaster response in these regions has been reactive rather than proactive. Disaster response teams, funding and resource accumulation begins only close on heels to the disaster. Wary of this constant lackadaisical attitude, the countries drafted the SAARC Rapid Response to Disasters Agreement aimed at building a regional disaster management mechanism to substantially reduce the harm caused by such calamities to populace and resources. It seeks to professionalise disaster management and strengthen response systems. The preamble of the agreement also seeks to promote cooperation and coordinated approach towards providing humanitarian assistance to member nations.

As commendable the initiative might be, the state of implementation remains appalling. This paper seeks to analyse the response to natural disasters which have occurred since 2015. Over 50 calamities have hit south Asian nations in a meagre 6 years including cyclones, floods, drought, earthquakes. Disasters in 2015 included the Darjeeling floods, Manipur landslide, Assam floods, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu floods, Bihar storms, heatwaves and multiple earthquakes in Pakistan and Nepal. This was followed in 2016 by heatwaves and forest fires in India, floods in Pakistan and an avalanche at the Siachen glacier. The years 2017, 18, 19 were submerged by earthquakes and floods in various Indian states and parts of Pakistan. Similarly, in 2020 earthquakes, locust attacks and floods were commonplace in India, Nepal, Pakistan. The major disasters in 2021 were cyclones Gulab and Islamabad flooding. Most of these disasters involved people and land from neighbouring nations being affected, infrastructure crumpling and loss of livelihood on both sides of the borders. A regional response to such calamities was expected in all these situations. Though bilateral arrangements have mustered, no SAARC level contingent has been deployed in the multitude of disasters that have disconcerted the region. Climate uncertainties have increased the chances of calamities, seeking immediate collective response from nations. Nestled in the Himalayan ranges which is still adjusting to tectonic movements, nations including Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bhutan and Afghanistan are also threatened by floods due to melting ice caps. Factors like surging population have cornered people to coastal regions, placing them at risk of cyclones and rise in water levels. The unique placement of Bangladesh makes 97% of its population prone to risk according to a report by the Asian Development Bank.  Professionals have also hinted at the multiple nations being affected by a single disaster in the south Asian region. An earthquake in Himalayas has the capacity to affect multiple countries, cyclones in Bay of Bengal and the Arabian sea affect two nations parallelly while every flood originates beyond a single nation. Popularly and infamously being dubbed as “mortality hotspots”, South Asian nations need to encash the regional framework opportunity to mitigate disaster risks, response to calamities.

The rate of natural disasters has skyrocketed at over 600% in the past 60 years, with developing nations being more vulnerable due to lack of forecasting, investment in public policies, mitigation measures. United Nations also estimates that nations can save $4 on disaster prevention for every $1 spent on disaster recovery. This demands a systematic approach to calamities, risk management and integrated management framework. South Asian nations have been served with the opportunity to collaborate on a disaster risk cycle. It demands concerted action with a combination of risk reduction, preparedness for calamities, reconstruction, risk financing and disaster relief. Nations need to coordinate in resilience building exercise through development policies, strategies and assistance programs.

With an overburdened and dispersed population, countries should focus on collaborated targeted impact on vulnerable sections.  UN Children’s Fund and UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction women and poor are more vulnerable to natural disasters. Nations also need to borrow and foster the strengths of disaster response. For instance, Bangladesh with assistance from world bank and UN Groups has created a strong community response system. A common program to create awareness, preparedness and response integrated with resilience will create a strong and informed community, thereby reducing the risks. Flood control and management through common funding and integrated loans from international institutions can enable creation of structural and non-structural interventions against floods. A stronger economic hold would also enable nations to invest in early warning systems and climate change mitigation. Sharing of technical know-how to forecast and predict can reduce vulnerability. Interaction between nations to facilitate travel of scientists and engineers can increase technical capacity and dodge miscommunication. Disaster risk insurance and financing at a collective level can gather larger funds, while allowing for efficient repayment. Substantive political support can sustain response measures as seen from the Pakistan example. Political coordination can be achieved through constant cooperation and sustainable relations with neighbouring leaders.

Although South Asia is no stranger to natural disasters, there is a huge gap between regional agreements and regional response. Increasing climate risks poise nations for increased disaster risks and calamities. There is a need to develop considerable awareness and regional cooperation among the developing nations. Their unique terrains, geographical placement and population density demand unique response, borrowing from others experiences and building a common response force.

*Nishtha Gupta is a fourth-year B.A. LL.B.(Hons.) student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India. She has an interest in IP law and human rights law.

Harsh Mahaseth
Harsh Mahaseth
Harsh Mahaseth is an Assistant Professor and Assistant Dean (Academic Affairs) at Jindal Global Law School, and the Assistant Director of the Nehginpao Kipgen Center for Southeast Asian Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, India.