World disasters call for "red-helmet brigade"

Peter Goodspeed, National Post - August 18, 2010


Demand grows for international reaction force

As Pakistan struggles with the biggest natural disaster in its history, complaints are increasing over the slow international response and demands are growing for the creation of an international reaction force to cope with catastrophes. "When you look back at disaster after disaster, we are confronted with the same problems," said Dr. Keith Martin, a Liberal MP for the British Columbia riding of Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca. "The co-ordination of logistics on the ground always starts from square one. From the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004, to the earthquakes that killed thousands in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the devastation Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the southern United States, to the Haiti earthquake and now the floods in Pakistan, it is obvious we have learned very little." A medical doctor who has worked extensively on humanitarian crises in the developing world, Dr. Martin has long advocated having the United Nations establish a rapid response unit to coordinate responses to natural disasters.

"Every time disasters strike, the international community's response suffers from a lack of co-ordination between governments, [non-governmental organizations] and other international bodies," he said. "It seems that each time ... the international community must relearn the same logistical lessons and recommence the same process of identifying, acquiring, and deploying urgently needed humanitarian goods and equipment. While this happens, people on the ground continue to suffer and die." After the Haiti earthquake it took weeks for most victims to receive emergency supplies even though badly needed aid was being stockpiled at the country's main airport. Dr. Martin says an organization such as the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs should establish a special response unit to set up a computerized database that identifies all available assets routinely needed in an emergency. "This would include everything from emergency personnel, medical personnel, water, non-perishable food stuffs, extraction machinery, temporary shelters and field hospitals," he said.

Some supplies could be held in locations around the world, ready to be dispatched as soon as disaster assessment experts working for a central command and control centre arrive on the scene of a catastrophe. "That way, when disaster strikes, at the click of a button you can mobilize the people and material you need, in much the same way we do in our local communities with a 911 response system," Dr. Martin said. "We desperately need this internationally because, time and time again, we have seen the absence of an organized plan that predetermined what you need.... [T]hat results in a dog's breakfast response, where assets simply sit on tarmacs for months." Rene Preval, the Haitian President, made a similar request to U.S. President Barack Obama after the Haiti earthquake, suggesting a "red-helmet brigade" be set up to respond to natural disasters. On Sunday, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, launched a similar appeal when he wrote to Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, calling for "a full European mobilization" to deal with the Pakistani floods. He also offered to make French military equipment, including aircraft and ships, available in co-operation with NATO.

In natural catastrophes, "we must take the necessary measures and build a real EU reaction force ... that draws on the resources of the member states," he added. Three weeks after torrential monsoon rains, nearly 25% of Pakistan's land mass has been flooded, 1,600 people have died and 20 million have been affected. More than two million are homeless and six million children are at risk of malnutrition, pneumonia and diarrhea. While local charities and international agencies have rushed food, water and shelter to the region, aid agencies and governments complain the international response has not been very efficient or generous.