Disaster relief must be the core task of armed forces in Asia-Pacific, which is prone to natural catastrophes ranging from earthquakes to flooding that often overwhelm civilian authorities, the region's defense chiefs said on Sunday. Addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security summit, the defense ministers of New Zealand, Chile and Malaysia spoke forcefully about the role of disciplined and well-equipped armed forces in bringing relief at short notice.
"International experience has shown that major disasters almost immediately overwhelm local emergency services," New Zealand's Wayne Mapp said.
"Humanitarian relief is increasingly a core task for all defense forces," he said, adding that it should be the main part of "military business, not simply a secondary task." The Shangri-La Dialogue, held by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies think tank, brings together defense ministers and hundreds of experts and analysts to discuss security issues. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed the conference on Saturday.
The Asia-Pacific region is one of the most disaster-prone areas in the world, with frequent earthquakes spawned by the so-called Ring of Fire stretching around the Pacific Ocean rim from Indonesia to Chile. Tectonic quakes also are frequent in India, Pakistan and China. Flooding and storms are common in Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines and the United States.
"In this situation, having defense forces at appropriate levels of readiness, and with a range of capabilities, is critical," Mapp said.
In his address, Chile's Jamie Ravinet de la Fuente gave a moving account of the devastation caused by the magnitude 8.8 earthquake that hit his country on February 27, and the role the armed forces played in humanitarian operations.
"If we talk about earthquake and seismic activity for sure we are among the top five" in the world, he said.
He said the quake released energy equivalent to 77,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs, hitting almost the entire country and incapacitating civilian emergency services as well as communications, including mobile phones and the Internet.
The military stepped in immediately with 20,000 soldiers to maintain order against looters, provide humanitarian relief and then oversee reconstruction.
He said the army built and installed 46,000 prefabricated emergency houses, removed more than 130,000 cubic meters (4.5 million cubic feet) of debris, repaired and replaced bridges and rebuilt 4,000 schools.
The army employed 20,000 civilians for the reconstruction work, providing direct employment to many who had lost their livelihoods, de la Fuente said. He said Chile is now considering setting up an army task force trained to handle humanitarian and emergency activities.
Former US Defense Secretary William Cohen noted that one of the key elements of providing security following a disaster is housing, shelter and health care clinics. "Many of the militaries of the world have that kind of capabilities," he said.
Malaysia's Ahmad Zahid Hamidi spoke of international cooperation in disaster management.
"Governments of nations facing major disasters, with limited state capacity, should accept foreign assistance, be it military or others in order to save more lives," he said.
The comment was a reference to Myanmar's protracted refusal to accept outside help after it was hit by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, which killed some 140,000 people.
"They should set aside political differences, and humanitarian considerations should be the uppermost concern," he said.