Civil-Military synergy in disaster management

Fostering humanitarian coordination in Nepal to save lives and maximise post-disaster relief

Efficient collaboration between civilian agencies, humanitarian groups and the security forces can make disaster responsemore effective. But while the military has a strong control and command culture, the civilian humanitarian outfits are less well organised.

Yet, there are examples of these two agencies which have diametrically opposing ways of working successfully coming together at crucial times.

In March 2020, the Nepal government established a Covid-19 Crisis Management Center (CCMC) to coordinate pandemic response, launched also at the provincial and district level. The CCMC, under civilian authority, together with different ministries, the Nepal Army (NA), the Nepal Police (NP), and the Armed Police Force (APF), coordinated the control, containment, and management of Covid-19.

When Nepal went into multiple lockdowns, most services also came to a halt and it was the security forces that managed migrant returnees, established isolation centres and ensured the disposal of dead bodies. They were also transporting Covid-19 patients from the Nepal-India border to hospitals and quarantine sites.

On 31 March 2019, a powerful storm hit Bara and Parsa districts in Madhes Province, killing more than 20 people and injuring over 700. Immediately after the disaster, the NA, APF and NP deployed search and rescue teams.

They worked with locals to search for victims and prevent further damage from fire, and also delivered relief support as well. In addition, the government tasked the Army to rebuild 869 damaged houses, which was accomplished on time.

Traditionally, communities managed disasters on their own. But in recent times, with the increase in disasters, the government, military actors, and other stakeholders have necessarily had to coordinate response.

Locals and security forces are often the first responders when a disaster strikes and the capability of the army and police is very crucial. Oftentimes, the government seeks international assistance, including support and deployment of foreign military forces during large-scale disasters like the 2015 earthquake.

But if we are to make humanitarian response more effective and timely, it is the capacity of Nepal’s own security apparatus that should be well-mobilised, trained and ready.  Coordination and partnership with security forces also make life-saving interventions transparent as they always follow command, control and coordination concepts.

According to the UN CMCoord Field Handbook, civil-military humanitarian coordination deals with all aspects of civil-military interaction to harmonise activities and promote humanitarian principles.

Coordination of operational activities, cooperation with the use of assets, and sharing of ground information can foster more effective civil-military humanitarian coordination. This can be achieved with regular interaction, joint planning, and task division.

It is the shared responsibility of civilian and military actors to work towards coherent and consistent humanitarian action. But there are different reasons and ways to collect information.

“As search and rescue workers, security forces are the ones who are deployed immediately after a disaster so they have enough information within the first 72 hours which the humanitarians can access to fill the gap in defining the scope of work and mobilising the lives-saving resources," says Krishna Karki, coordinator of a women humanitarian platform.

This can create synergies between civilian groups and the security forces. Better coordination can expand the understanding and establish interaction leading to information exchange. In addition, regular interaction can facilitate a good understanding of each other’s working culture and procedures for future disasters too.

Similarly, joint planning between the civilian and security forces can make humanitarian assistance programs more efficient. In principled humanitarian assistance, the role of security forces is sought in indirect assistance such as logistics-- the transportation of relief items and humanitarian personnel and infrastructure support such as repairing damaged roads.

For example, in 2021, the Nepal Army rebuilt a collapsed bridge in Melamchi. Military actors get involved only as a last resort to direct assistance, such as the distribution of relief items.

"To optimise the benefit of limited resources, joint planning between civilian, humanitarian and military actors has to be impactful," says civil-military expert Col (Retired) Ratindra Khatri. “The civilian authority and agencies, researchers, private sector, humanitarian partners and security forces should collaborate and come together for a common goal of dealing with the impact of disasters.”

In far-flung and remote areas of Nepal, logistics is the most challenging aspect post-disaster where military assets such as airlift capacity become crucial. For example, in the 2009 Jajarkot diarrhea outbreak, Nepal Army medical teams and air assets were deployed in containing the disease.

To ensure consistency in coordination and increase the efficacy of available resources, civilian agencies and military need to agree on task division too to avoid duplication and waste.

The 2015 Nepal earthquake and response to other recurring natural disasters have provided a historical basis for robust civil-military humanitarian coordination. Being a country prone to multiple hazards, we have to build on past experience and further strengthen coordination and preparedness.

Next time a major earthquake, flood or landslide strikes any part of the country, a clearly defined and agreed-upon framework can facilitate structured and efficient deployment of search, rescue and relief. Interaction, information sharing and task division between the civilian authority, humanitarian actors and security forces must work seamlessly together.

Prem Awasthi has over 15 years of experience in humanitarian coordination with the UN. 

Read more: A disaster resilient Nepal is possible,  Anil Pokhrel

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