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Enhancing Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief in the Indian Ocean

  • Geopolitics
  • 19 d ago
  • 16 min read
Enhancing Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief in the Indian Ocean | Dr. Frédéric Grare is an Associate Senior Policy Fellow with the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Indian assistance to victims of fire in Madagascar. | Indian Navy

Dr. Frédéric Grare
Dr. Frédéric Grare - Associate Senior Policy Fellow, Asia Programme, European Council on Foreign Relations.

Australia, India and France are reasonably compatible politically. Australia and India are part of the QUAD whereas France maintains an excellent political relationship with India and has initiated a reconciliation process with Australia. Each of them can bring reassurances to countries of the other’s sub-regions. Ultimately however, their role would be one of initiators and convenors, but not exclusive from other potential sponsors of the initiative.

Introduction

Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) cooperation is increasingly becoming a theme of central importance in international debates. Natural disasters are increasing globally, calling everywhere for collective responses. In a context of great power rivalry though, the cooperative nature of HADR is increasingly impacted by geostrategic considerations and is no longer only a demonstration of good will.

HADR is increasingly becoming competitive. It has gradually transformed into a zero-sum game, with the recipient states being conferred significant bargaining power in the process. In practical terms, it means that the providing countries no longer have to focus exclusively on capacities, already a problem in normal times. They must also accommodate the political will of recipient states which is not matched by the necessary capabilities to receive HADR.

The Indian Ocean Region illustrates better than any other the difficulties inherent to the implementation of effective HADR coordination mechanisms. The lack of capacity of a substantial number of regional states, particularly (but not exclusively) on the African coast; weak governance, especially at sea; the political fragmentation of the area; and the rivalries between states; are all obstacles that China’s presence is exacerbating. All multilateral initiatives to create regional or even sub-regional HADR coordination mechanisms have so far yielded little or no results. The promises of the QUAD in the matter, have so far not changed this reality. 

The present paper postulates that the success or failure of any future architecture in the Indian Ocean will be premised on its capacity to navigate these various constraints. It will have to transform recipient states from consumers to stakeholders of HADR in a context of huge discrepancy between their capacities and political aspirations. 

Building such an architecture will therefore be a slow and likely frustrating process. But the case can be made that since the relationships of the major actors with their immediate neighbours is often burdened by historical and political baggage, there is a need to enlarge existing coordination mechanisms beyond their sub-regional dimension, in order to overcome the political difficulties in case of disasters. 

The changing significance of HADR operations

HADR has never really been exclusively the expression of a moral duty, a benign tool providing exceptional assistance to vulnerable populations.1 Nor have geopolitical considerations ever been absent from the conduct of its operations. It always was – for the providing countries – an occasion to demonstrate their capacities as well as their commitment to the region in which they were operating, also offering opportunities for coalition-building and engagements with new partners.

This, however, is evolving today due to a changing perception of the nature of threats and a different understanding of the global security environment:

Threat perceptions are still linked to power rivalries, but also to non-traditional security concerns of which natural disasters constitute an important dimension. In an era of diminished legitimacy of wars as a state policy, the ability to respond to natural disasters inevitably becomes an instrument (among others) for asserting influence.

In this context, climate change is of growing importance, both as a risk multiplier, and a factor of resources depletion. It is, moreover, perceived as having the potential to change theoperational environment in which armed forces operate. It has consequently increased the strategic nature of HADR as well as the attention it receives.

Militarization is also an important factor in the changing significance and politicisation of HADR. The increase in the number of disasters linked to climate change make the Armed Forces, which can be always mobilized, an increasingly relevant actor. Indeed, although HADR is not their primary raison d’etre, the Armed Forces are ambivalent about it as they spend more time conducting HADR than actual combat operations. From their perspective, HADR competence is an indicator of the operational readiness of conventional forces. But it inevitably confers HADR operations a potentially coercive dimension even if it contributes to softening the image of the military and its acceptance by local populations.

Politicisation – which is not exclusively linked to the militarization of HADR – increasingly impacts HADR. The degree of political penetration by HADR actors, significantly impacts the logistics and therefore the efficacy of the operations, as they can be implemented only with the agreement of recipient countries, while overseas military bases is also a facilitating factor.  

Moreover, HADR operations rarely take place in a political and historical vacuum. Historical baggage often plays a role in the perception of operations by the populations and governments of the affected countries. Disasters produce opportunities for change in relationships, through non-coercive measures such as rescue missions in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. HADR has therefore the potential to influence the nature of international relations of countries afflicted by disasters.  

Ultimately, the emergence of new actors, in particular China, also affects the role and significance of HADR. The impact of operations varies according to the intention of the provider. The growing needs for HADR capacities of a majority of Indian Ocean coastal or island states, combined with the growing polarisation of international and regional relations undoubtedly make HADR an instrument of strategic competition, with polarisation giving the recipient countries considerable leverage in the process. 

Indian Ocean HADR institutional architectures: the impossible cooperation

Despite these evolutions, cooperation in HADR remains underdeveloped in the Indian Ocean where the existing coordination mechanisms provide for a very uneven coverage of the different subregions. 

HADR cooperation did not really begin in South Asia until 2005, in the aftermath of the tsunami and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) developed the comprehensive Framework on Disaster Management (SCFMD). Each country in the region has since established a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Three regional centres were subsequently created to implement the SCFMD: The SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC) based in New Delhi, the SAARC Meteorological Centre, based in Dhaka and the SAARC Coastal Management Centre (SCMC) located in Male.2  

However, none of the SAARC pledges materialised. The SAARC Agreement on Rapid Response to Natural Disasters (SARRND), signed in 2010 by all member states, was ratified only by India. The Natural Disaster Rapid Response Mechanism (NDRRM), which provided for the identification by each SAARC member country of equipment and capabilities that could be mobilized as part of the collective response, never saw the light of day, while a series of annual collective disaster response exercises did not go beyond the inaugural exercise.3 Weak capabilities of some states, like Nepal, that do not have the resources to help other states, explains that situation. But political tensions within SAARC, in particular tensions between India and Pakistan, are also to blame.4  

The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is not equipped to respond directly to disasters. It has nevertheless announced some Guidelines for HADR in November 2021,5 and addressed the topic in the IORA’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific published in December 2022.6 But, if it seems eager to increase cooperation in disaster response, action remains extremely limited. Initiatives are not structured within the organization and depend largely on individual initiatives. 

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which includes Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Bhutan and Nepal, recognized the need for regional cooperation on HADR in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. However, it called for exercises only in 2016. The organization struggles to involve the armed forces of all its member states, some of them lacking the necessary resources.

Indeed, most HADR operations conducted in the region are highly dependent on India,7 which invites IORA member states in its own HADR seminars and training, but organises few,if any of them, within the regional structure. Similarly, India has so far, hosted all BIMSTEC exercises. 

The situation is slightly different in the South-West of the Indian-Ocean where the mechanisms implemented by the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) as part of the regional maritime safety programme (MASE),8 funded by the European Union, are all valuable tools for conducting HADR operations, although these mechanisms are not exclusively dedicated to HADR.

The regional Centre for the Fusion of Maritime Information (CRFIM), based in Madagascar, is a regional centre for the exchange and fusion of maritime information over an area stretching from the Cape of Good Hope to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. It is complemented by the Regional Coordination Centre for Operations at Sea (CRCO),9 based in the Seychelles, whose main function is to conduct joint operations. Both centres are essential and complementary instruments for maritime security in the sub-region. 

Coordination mechanisms indeed remain underdeveloped in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, the creation of an Indian Ocean HADR architecture is unlikely to emerge from existing mechanisms because of uneven coverage of the different subregions. 

Enhancing HADR cooperation in the Indian Ocean

Such a situation does not augur well for the future of HADR coordination mechanisms in the Indian Ocean. However, none can be expected to be built outside existing realities and will have to start with a sustained effort of capacity-building. The following additional factors will also have to be taken into consideration: 

1. Limited capacities have not prevented a desire for greater participation in and greater appropriation of HADR. This is perhaps the most important factor and cannot be ignored even if it only complicates any potential attempt to rationalise regional cooperation.

2. The states most likely to constitute the pillars of any future architectures are also the most burdened with political and strategic baggage in the region. The reality of the latter is irrelevant here. What matters is the perception by the partners, actual and/or potential. 

3. Moreover, as underlined by a 2024 report of the Canberra-based National Security College, “the scale and diversity of the Indian Ocean militates against a single disaster preparedness, prevention and response and recovery architecture”.10

The proposed architectures are therefore likely to be processes rather than fixed frameworks, to build on existing structures, acknowledging their deficiencies, and to gradually move to more united coordination mechanisms. 

Quad Countries sign the HADR agreement. | The Hindu.

Quad Countries sign the HADR agreement. | The Hindu.

Devising an Indian Ocean HADR coordination mechanism

1.  The IONS as a permanent secretariat and coordination mechanism for HADR in the Indian Ocean

In this context, one could imagine a dual-track mechanism, based on existing structures but specifying the role of each and articulating them whenever possible. 

The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) is perhaps the platform with the most interesting potential to develop a regional coordination mechanism. Politically, it includes most of the navy chiefs of the littoral and island states of the Indian Ocean. It already conducts exercises to promote interoperability between navies and organises regular conferences and seminars for the exchange of best practices.11 The IONS has also published guidelines for HADR, which specifies that the commitment of national capabilities by member states can only be made on a voluntary basis and respecting the sovereignty, territorial integrity and national legislation of the affected state.12

It also details the main mechanism of action and is unquestionably the most operational platform in the Indian Ocean, even if HADR cooperation at sea remains inhibited by a series of factors. The lack of interoperability which enable navies of different sizes and natures to cooperate effectively is the predominant problem. 

The IONS could potentially perform a central role as the default coordination mechanism and work over time, on the unification of the Indian Ocean operating procedures. This role could be fulfilled through the current IONS HADR Working Group, enlarged to include Singapore, South Africa, Kenya and the UAE.13 All of them are politically relatively compatible and since they represent different parts of the Indian Ocean, be more acceptable to the affected countries of HADR operations than powers external to the considered sub-region. The larger participation would be politically inclusive, without affecting the decision-making process or the operations.

Its functions would be three-fold:

a. It would act as a HADR secretariat for the Indian Ocean playing for IONS members the role initially dedicated to the SAARC Natural Disaster Rapid Response Mechanism (NDRRM), which never materialized. IONS member states would be requested to take legislative and administrative measures to implement, on a voluntary basis the provisions of the IONS guidelines. These include measures for requesting and receiving assistance; conducting needs assessments; mobilizing equipment, personnel, materials and other facilities; making regional standby arrangements, including emergency stockpiles; and ensuring quality control of relief items. It would maintain a roaster of assets that could be potentially mobilized in real time and work on all the legalities indispensable to diminish the time of response to disaster and facilitate the operations. IONS would operate on the model of the Natural Rapid Response Mechanism (NDRRM), initiated by SAARC, that was signed in 2011, and ratified in 2016, but never really created.14

b. It would also be in charge of capacity-building. Capacities and capabilities should indeed be maintained and improved through interoperability and created in countries where they do not exist or prove insufficient. The training aspect of the IONS (conferences and seminars for the exchange of best practices) would be institutionalized within the institution in an HADR Centre of Excellence. This Centre of Excellence, would be in charge of all matters related to capacity building and planning of exercises between navies.

c. The IONS would also act as a coordinating mechanism each time the needs of a specific country or sub-region affected by a disaster would surpass its response capacity. The political diversity of the states represented in the IONS HADR Working Group would facilitate access to the national authorities of the affected countries and, whenever necessary, help overcome the bilateral difficulties linked to historical or political baggage which have sometimes prevented or delayed operations in the past. Such a task is already assumed by the IONS Secretariat whenever the need has arisen. 

2. Mobilizing the players 

The number of countries capable of providing assets for the projection of relief material is limited and unevenly located around the Indian Ocean. India, Australia and France of course but also Singapore, Indonesia, South Africa, and increasingly the United Arab Emirates and perhaps Kenya, could be in this context the main providers of assistance. Not all of them have the range of large, medium and small ships or helicopters that allow for the transportation of personnel and material, not just to the affected countries but also to the most remote locations where these personnel and material are expected to reach. This will have to be taken into account when deciding available mechanisms in the Indian Ocean.

Since HADR efficiency is determined by the speed of the response and therefore a function of the distance and the capacities, existing sub-regional coordination mechanisms should be preserved if they have proved to be relevant. The Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) for example, has two valuable assets: the Regional Centre for the Fusion of Maritime Information (CRFIM) based in Madagascar which covers an area stretching from the Cape of Good Hope to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Seychelles-based Regional Coordination Centre for operations at Sea (CRCO). Both these IOC assets are essential for maritime HADR operations although not exclusively dedicated to it.

Individual countries like India would also play a major role, directly and/or under the auspices of IONS, as its location and capacities (including the Gurugram-based IFC-IOR) makes it an operational partner of choice for the entire region. However, the operational consequences of the politically difficult relationships it sometimes has with its neighbours could be reduced if it operated under an IONS label.  

Conclusion

One may ultimately argue that there is no urgency in building an HADR coordination mechanism in the Indian Ocean. Thanks to the capacity of India as well as other external powers, regional countries have always managed to cope with disasters of all kinds.

Two reasons however argue against complacency:

The Indian Ocean is warming at higher rates than global oceans. Although there is no certainty regarding the impact this may have on the frequency of all categories of tropical cyclones in the long term, its intensity is likely to increase significantly and therefore their consequences on the regional countries, in particular the island states which tend to be more vulnerable.15 Overall coastal states might also be affected by continuous rise in sea levels, resulting in severe coastal erosion and floods. Hence the need to intensify preparedness across the region. 

Moreover, as indicated in the introduction, China is emerging as a major HADR actor across the Indo-Pacific. In the Indian Ocean, its interventions have been so far limited to its periphery – Afghanistan, Bangladesh Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan. Yet, its presence in the Indian Ocean is no longer marginal and will increasingly be felt should disasters multiply in the region. True, HADR is only one of the instruments through which China develops its regional influence.

HADR is also an integral part of its development strategy. Its importance lies much less in its practices or the volume of its operations than in its political significance and strategic consequences. It creates a new situation in which regional states see the possibility of acquiring margins of diplomatic manoeuvre as well as political visibility so far non-existent and which they are unlikely to renounce.

China’s HADR cannot be rejected which would be counter-productive, any more than its impact can be ignored. But it can and should be singled out for everybody to see that its methods do not respect international HADR norms.

This combination of humanitarian and strategic considerations is not an abstract construct which can be conveniently ignored to conduct business as usual HADR preparations and operations. It does question the role of the recipient countries who cannot simply be seen as passive objects of external benevolence and have fully understood the opportunities that arise from the current polarization. 

This should in turn lead to consider turning recipient states of HADR from consumers to stakeholders. The asymmetry in resource endowment will inevitably make it a long-term process but this should not prevent current stakeholders to associate them into the conversation over HADR. 

The benefits could be threefold: It would improve the level of preparedness and reactions to disaster and improve the efficiency of HADR operations. In the process, it would help bypass the political difficulties among Indian Ocean actors in their reactions to disasters and conduct of relief operations. It would ultimately reduce the political benefits that China would derive from its HADR operations. It would be one actor among others and not necessarily the most important.

India by contrast, would remain the predominant HADR-provider by virtue of its geographic location and capacities. However, these also tend to create a feeling of insecurity in some of its proximate neighbours, driving them closer to China. India would therefore benefit from a more cooperative approach, driven politically by more diverse partners which would dilute the perception of “big brother politics by other means”. India’s partners would in return benefit from India’s support in Indian Ocean sub-regions where they face similar problems.     

The question remains as to who should take the lead for what would is admittedly a politically and technically complex endeavour. The initiative can only be the one of states whose capabilities and experience confer them credibility. They should moreover be representative of various subregions of the Indian Ocean, be politically compatible and be able to reassure other partners. 

All these reasons argue in favour of a trilateral cooperation among Australia, France and India. The three countries have a proven experience in HADR as well as capacities to intervene in various parts of the Indian Ocean. Australia, France and India have converging interests regarding China. They can operate respectively in the Northeast, the Southeast as well as the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

The three of them are reasonably compatible politically. Australia and India are part of the QUAD whereas France maintains an excellent political relationship with India and has initiated a reconciliation process with Australia. Each of them can bring reassurances to countries of the other’s sub-regions. Ultimately however, their role would be one of initiators and convenors, but not exclusive from other potential sponsors of the initiative.

(Exclusive to NatStrat)

Endnotes:

  1. For an overview of the debate about the difference of outlook and principles of various conceptions of HADR, see Sarabjeet Singh Parmar, “Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) in India’s National Strategy, Journal of Defence Studies, Vol.6, No 1, January 2012, pp. 91-101.
  2. Shanahan David, “South Asia”, in Ear Jessica, Cook Alistair and Canyon Dean, Disaster Response Regional Architectures: Assessing Future Possibilities, Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, September 2017. , pp. 21-23.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Canyon Deon, “India Leading International HADR Cooperation in South Asia”, Security Nexus, May 2021.
  5. “21st IORA Council of Minister’s Meeting on 17 November 2021 held by the People’s Republic of Bangladesh”, IORA News, 17 November 2021
  6. IORA’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, 22 December 2022
  7. Canyon Deon, “India Leading International HADR Cooperation in South Asia”, Security Nexus, May 2021.
  8. The Regional Maritime Information Centre presented at the Madagascar International Fair, Indian Ocean Commission, 22 May 2016
  9. Jean-Tehane Faatau, “The Indian Ocean has its Regional Coordination Centre for Operations at Sea”, Outremers360, 30 September 2019
  10. Alan Ryan, Regional Disaster response in the Indian Ocean Region, National Security College, 19 March 2024
  11. Shishir Upadhyaya, “Naval humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) operations in the Indo-Pacific region: need for fresh thinking”, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, 2022
  12. IONS Guidelines for HADR, Version 3.1, December 2017
  13. The IONS HADR working group is currently composed of Australia, Bangladesh, France, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Maldives, Pakistan, Timor Leste. IONS Working Groups, Indian Ocean Naval Symposium.
  14. Disaster Response in Asia and the Pacific, OCHA.
  15. IANS, “New IPCC Report: Indian Ocean Warming at Higher Rate than Global Oceans, Highlights IITM Scientist”, The Times of India, 9 August 2021.

     

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