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The story of ADPC: Holding a mirror to disaster risk reduction in Asia

When we think of climate change today, inevitably we draw linkages to global warming. Over the past decade the scientific community and civil society have instilled urgency around the issue of global warming, such that it has pervaded into the psyche of the common person.

In the mid-1980’s, however, climate change was synonymous with a different anomaly, El Niño. The 1982–1983 El Niño is commonly regarded as the strongest occurrence of El Niño this century. To many people around the world climatic changes were extreme, if not apocalyptic. The coastal deserts of Ecuador and Peru experienced heavy rainfall, transforming them into grassland. Typhoons and monsoon rains swept across the island nations of the central Pacific. Australia and Southeast Asia experienced unprecedented drought leading to widespread bushfires and forest fires. The world was constantly responding to disaster situations. It was during this period that the idea of disaster risk reduction came to be. Instead of responding to disasters after they occurred, losses could be prevented by preparing for disaster. In the same way global warming has turned our attention to climate change and disaster risk reduction today, El Niño stirred global attention then. It was after this period of turmoil, with the world still reeling from El Niño, that Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) had its start.

Humble beginnings
Recognizing the urgent need of international assistance for disaster-prone countries in Asia and the Pacific, the United Nations Disaster Relief Office (UNDRO, now UNOCHA), with support from the United Nations Development Programme and the World Meteorological Organization, conducted a feasibility study to strengthen the national disaster management systems in the region. Colonel Brian Ward, a technical advisor for UNDRO at the time, did the consulting work for the study in early 1985, visiting ten countries in the region to clarify their needs in disaster management. Colonel Brian Ward was a visionary for his time and among the first proponents for disaster risk reduction as a means to reduce the burden of relief. The findings of the study recommended a regional resource center in Asia, Asian Disaster Preparedness Center. In 1986 ADPC was created under the auspices of UNDRO with non other than Colonel Brian Ward as its first director.

Colonel Brian Ward’s ADPC of the late 80s and early 90s was a very different institution from what it is today. While still based on the principle of preparing for disasters before they occurred, ADPC was not yet an independent organization and acted within the premises of the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT). The scope of its work was confined to the provision of training for key actors in national disaster management agencies. These actors would then carry ideas from the training back to their respective countries to formulate more progressive policies in disaster management.

ADPC’s scope of work expanded as a result of the United Nation’s resolution proclaiming the 1990’s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR). Global interest in disaster risk reduction saw increased support for ADPC to implement programs outside of its usual training activities. Notably the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supported the implementation of the Asian Urban Disaster Mitigation Program and the Program for Enhancement of Emergency Response. These two programs would continue to be implemented by ADPC into the mid and late 2000’s.

During ADPC’s emergency simulations, community first responders need to deal with multiple situations caused by natural hazards. Image courtesy of Asian Disaster Preparedness Center.

Independence and structure
In 1999 ADPC achieved its independence as an organization distinct from the Asian Institute of Technology; The process was motivated by ADPC’s quickly expanding program activities. The decision to make the transition was not sudden and had been many years in planning. As early as 1991 the possibility of an independent ADPC had been discussed. As such, it was not a surprise when AIT’s board of trustees endorsed the separation of ADPC in 1999, citing that both organizations now served different constituencies and worked towards different visions.

  • To this day, ADPC’s vision is to achieve safer communities and sustainable development through disaster risk reduction. It aims to realize this vision by fulfilling five goals, which are:
  • Mainstreaming disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in development.
  • Establishing systems and capacities that reduce disaster and climate risk impacts.
  • Serving as a regional resource center for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.
  • Sharing disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation knowledge and experiences.
  • Serving as an incubator for innovation to address challenging and emerging issues in disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.

To affect these goals ADPC has organized its activities into three crosscutting core programs: science, systems, and application. The science program enhances the capacity of countries in the utilization of scientific information to understand risk. The systems program strengthens systems for effective management of risk at all levels in countries, with an emphasis on the sub-national and local levels. The application program improves grounded application of disaster risk reduction measures in development.

The Regional Consultative Committee on Disaster Management held its 12th meeting in Thimphu, Bhutan in June 2015. The meeting was opened by H.E. Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay, Prime Minister of Bhutan. Image courtesy of Sonam Wangdi.

Making a long-term investment in Asia
It is an observable trend that far fewer resources are being spent on preparedness as compared with relief. This owes partly to the fact that while the results of relief can be measured almost immediately in clear tangible terms, the results of preparedness are often intangible and much more difficult to measure. Only till the next major hazard can community-based disaster risk reduction training be truly assessed and it may take up to a decade to assess the effectiveness of an intergovernmental framework for disaster risk reduction. Fortunately, ADPC is among the oldest institutions of its type in Asia and has had an opportunity to see many of its activities yield fruit.

Following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami ADPC also worked with countries in the region to bring lasting technological solutions for early warning. Countries in the region now share the capabilities to receive and analyze seismic, sea level, and deep ocean sensor data to better deliver early warning and prepare for response.

In preparing responders, among ADPC’s oldest programs is the Program for Enhancement of Emergency Response implemented with support from USAID. ADPC’s involvement with the program in 1998–2014 provided communities with the skills to act as first responders and provided hospitals with the ability to respond to mass casualty incidents. Responders trained under the program have been involved in relief efforts in places including Bangladesh during the Rana Plaza tragedy, and Nepal in the recent earthquake.

On the level of government, ADPC has worked to encourage mainstreaming disaster risk reduction into development. Mainstreaming is the process whereby governments normalize the integration of disaster risk considerations into development planning. By concentrating on resilience, Asia’s rapid development can occur in a way that is safe and sustainable. ADPC’s work on mainstreaming has largely been through the Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction into Development program implemented under the supervision of the Regional Consultative Committee on Disaster Management.

The Regional Consultative Committee on Disaster Management (RCC) is another longstanding ADPC initiative that has played a central role in the evolution of disaster risk reduction in the region. The RCC is comprised of key government actors in the national disaster management organizations of 26 countries across Asia and meets annually. ADPC serves as the secretariat for the committee that held its 12th meeting in June 2015 in Bhutan.

ADPC has also gained considerable standing as a disaster risk reduction authority in the region having worked with the governments for almost 30 years. ADPC acted as a key consultant in creating the Asia-Pacific input document for the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction that was adopted at the 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015. The Sendai Framework is the principle document that will guide disaster risk reduction efforts globally in the next 15 years.

The evolution of disaster risk
Since 1986 global understanding of disaster risk and climate change has evolved. Where El Niño created unpredictable climate patterns in the early 80’s, today we are able to predict the climatic changes caused by El Niño and prepare for them. A global leaning towards disaster relief is slowly shifting towards disaster risk reduction and has resulted in fewer lives lost during disasters. ADPC too has evolved. By making long-term investments, both in its programs and in its relationships with governments and stakeholders, ADPC has changed from a small resource center to a leading organization at the helm of disaster risk reduction in Asia. However, global understanding of disaster risk must continue to evolve. While fewer lives are now lost in disasters, economic losses are increasing. ADPC also continues to evolve, looking to non-traditional private stakeholders to support programs in economic resilience. Nevertheless, one thing will always remain constant: ADPC will continue to make long-term investments in order to create a safer Asia.

For more information, go to www.adpc.net

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Shane Wright is Executive Director of Asian Disaster Preparedness Center.

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