Disaster Response

Military support to victims of earthquakes, floods and other disasters builds stability

The magnitude-7.8 earthquake that rocked Nepal in April 2015 killed thousands of people and damaged millions of buildings. The earthquake and its aftershocks were so powerful they actually moved the world’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest, by 3 centimeters, triggering avalanches that claimed even more victims.

Disasters like this require massive and complex responses from militaries, governments, nongovernmental organizations and international donors. With the support of military and security forces, governments are better able to save lives, alleviate human suffering and reduce economic and social displacement.

Coordination among all agencies is critical to ensure an effective response — militaries are typically not the primary responding agencies and must understand their roles and capabilities through joint training in disaster response. Many countries recognize the benefit of doing this and hold regular exercises that include whole-of-government responses to natural or manmade disasters.

Nepal response

As news traveled the world of the horrific destruction caused by the Nepalese earthquake, Pakistan was among the first countries to act. Its National Disaster Management Authority, in coordination with Pakistan’s Army and Air Forces, sent search and rescue teams along with two C-130 aircraft full of relief supplies — food, blankets, tents and medicine — and a mobile hospital. Army doctors and paramedics also trekked to Nepal to help the injured.

Relief aid destined for Nepal, part of the UAE’s humanitarian aid to earthquake victims, is loaded at Dubai International Airport.

Relief aid destined for Nepal, part of the UAE’s humanitarian aid to earthquake victims, is loaded at Dubai International Airport.

“Urban search and rescue team of the Pakistan Army equipped with ground penetrating radars, concrete cutters, sniffing dogs and equipment have been sent to help rescue teams,” said Inter-Services Public Relations Director General Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa in a news release.

This initial response was followed by an on-the-ground assessment to determine further needs. Work to uncover victims buried by their homes is perilous and requires highly trained teams able to navigate in treacherous conditions. But peril isn’t restricted to downed power lines, gas leaks and unstable rubble.

As one Pakistani Air Force crew prepared to land 40 tons of relief supplies and 18 engineers, aftershocks struck the airfield in Nepal. “I thought my [communications were] out,” Ahmad Bilal, an Air Force squadron leader, told NBC News. “We were just rolling around. And then [the controller] comes back, 15 minutes later. He had run off because of the aftershocks.”

The earth continued to rumble after arrival.

As the team unloaded supplies, the 150,000-pound aircraft lurched forward about 4 feet, Pakistan technician Sanaullah Khan told NBC News. “Then the whole plane was lurched 4 feet forward. That’s when, in the distance, a building collapsed and the dust raced toward us. It was like a sandstorm, it came so fast,” Khan said.

The United Arab Emirates also assumed an important role after the earthquake, thanks to His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE. By order of Gen. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, the Ministry of Interior’s search and rescue team was mobilized, including 88 military officers and disaster relief specialists. The team had taken part in similar missions to help earthquake victims in Pakistan and Indonesia in 2006 and 2007 and in Afghanistan in 2008.

A Pakistan Ranger distributes water bottles during a heat wave in Karachi in June 2015.

A Pakistan Ranger distributes water bottles during a heat wave in Karachi in June 2015.

Highlighting the already in-place interagency coordination in the UAE, a group from the Emirates Red Crescent aid group traveled with search and rescue crews to support forces on the ground and provide direct humanitarian assistance to the Nepalese. A separate Red Crescent delegation rushed to New Delhi to buy food and medical supplies so that they could be airlifted more quickly to quake-stricken areas.

Always prepared

Disaster response is challenging. It requires a variety of organizations to communicate and coordinate internally and across borders. Central and South Asian militaries have acknowledged this challenge, and as a result, participate in U.S. Central Command’s Regional Cooperation exercise. Previous exercises allowed countries to engage in simulated multinational disaster response operations. Participants have included Afghanistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and the United States.

The Eagle Resolve military exercise, held biennially and rotated among Gulf Cooperation Council countries, has recently included military-civilian team building to improve disaster response.

Regional militaries that have joined these and other exercises have regular and continuous experience supporting humanitarian missions. Jordan, for example, has responded to disasters and crises around the world. The Royal Jordan Air Force routinely supports humanitarian engagements using C-130 aircraft. For example, Jordanian crews have delivered medical assistance to Sudan, sent relief supplies to tsunami victims in the Maldives and Indonesia and supported earthquake victims in Armenia, Japan, Pakistan and Turkey.

These types of scenarios — both real world and simulated — allow militaries to share best practices that allow for quick and effective response to disasters. Military leaders increasingly recognize that they must build relationships and hold planning sessions with police, civilian agencies, nongovernmental organizations and international organizations so that when disaster strikes they can act in unison to save lives, limit human suffering and return societies to normal.

Sources: Emirates News Agency-WAM, Pakistan Today, Royal Jordanian Air Force website, NBC, Pakistan Inter-Services Public Relations