Cathy Lengyel in Almaty
On a recent evening in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, seventeen International Federation staff and disaster management coordinators from the five Red Crescent Societies in the region opened sealed envelopes, as instructed, at precisely 21:15.
“The news inside was not good,” says Ikrom Soliev of the Tajikistan Red Crescent Society. “It told us that there had been a major earthquake in a city of 500,000 people in south-western Kazakhstan. There were many dead, injured, and displaced people, most communications were cut, roads and railways were disrupted, and freezing temperatures were expected during the night. We had to act quickly, or the death toll would rise.”
Participants spent the next 24 hours in a “table-top” exercise dealing with this simulated disaster – all part of the process of developing and refining the Central Asia Regional Contingency Plan (RCP), a key instrument in planning for disaster response in the region.
Ikrom and several of his colleagues in the exercise understand the importance of coordinated and effective disaster response very well. As members of the Central Asia Regional Disaster Response Team (RDRT), they had been deployed to Pakistan in late 2005 to bring relief to the victims of the Kashmir earthquake.
“We all know that the first few hours are crucial,” says Zhanna Andagulova of the Federation’s Almaty Regional Delegation. “That is not the time to begin searching for crucial contacts or figuring out where relief supplies are located. We must be ready to act at a moment’s notice - especially in a rapid-onset disaster like an earthquake.”
Unfortunately, this is precisely the kind of disaster which is likely to strike Central Asia with deadly effects. The risk of a devastating earthquake, measuring over nine points on the Richter Scale, occurring near one of Central Asia’s capital cities in the next twenty years has been calculated at 40%. In addition, the region is prone to seasonal disasters - landslides and floods in the springtime, and drought and dust-storms during the harsh summers.
By 09:00 the following morning, the exercise team had - in the “virtual” world of the simulation - organised the deployment of a disaster response team from neighbouring Uzbekistan, closest to the hypothetical disaster site. Three separate convoys of relief supplies with blankets, tents, and water containers were being dispatched from Almaty, and from sister National Societies in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, under pre-agreed procedures for mutual assistance.
“That was when we hit our first major hurdle,” explained Zhanna. “Since the simulated disaster occurred on a weekend, the banks were closed, and there was not a sufficient ‘cash float’ available for immediate use by the emergency operation.” Team members agreed that this was something the Regional Delegation would have to address, as part of planning for a real emergency.
According to Jagan Chapagain, the Federation’s Head of Regional Delegation, the RCP now under development is meant to speed response to such catastrophes, by combining the resources of the region’s five Red Crescent Societies (trained personnel, relief goods, vehicles, and communications equipment) with, if necessary, a preparedness to receive the specialized teams and units offered through the Federation’s global disaster response framework.
“This means putting into place agreements for cross-border transfer of people and material aid, setting up standard operating procedures for coordination and action at each stage of the response, and strengthening and standardising the relief stocks in each of the five countries”, he adds.
Since Central Asia is a region with limited local resources and complex inter-meshing borders, and is relatively remote from outside assistance, the planning process is all the more complicated. A particular challenge is envisaging the response to multi-country disasters, to disasters occurring in remote areas or during the depths of the severe Central Asian winter, or to complex disasters - for instance, major industrial or environmental catastrophes - of a kind which the National Societies have not had to deal with in the past.
Since August 2006, the five Red Crescent Societies, with Federation assistance, have each produced their own national-level contingency plans, as a basis for the RCP. A series of meetings have worked up a draft RCP, complete with risk and resource maps, standard procedures, mobilization agreements, and contact lists. The recent Almaty meeting, featuring the earthquake simulation, was the latest step in this process.
“It was a very useful experience”, says Ikrom Soliev, “We were forced to get relief organised quickly, open channels of communication, react to the disaster situation as it evolved in ways we didn’t expect, and even deal with awkward questions from the “media” - all at the same time!”.
Lessons learned from the test were fed back into the finalisation of the RCP, which is now up for approval by the National Society leadership. But nobody underestimates the challenges of planning for a “worst case scenario” in this disaster-prone region.
“We’ve made big strides”, says Zhanna Andagulova, “We still have far to go, but at least we are on the road.”