Cross-border cooperation – Disasters, COVID-19 and Confidence Building

March 18 is the date the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 was adopted in 2015, at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan. On this day we reflect upon the connections between natural disasters and COVID-19 from a peacebuilding perspective. This is a report from a webinar in a series held in late 2020, where speakers shared their reflections on multilateral cooperation in the fields of natural disasters and COVID-19, both serious non-traditional security threats. It was an opportunity to learn from cooperation mechanisms in South Asia, to consider lessons for Northeast Asia where such mechanisms are few. The webinar was jointly facilitated by Peace Boat and its specialized disaster relief branch, Peace Boat Disaster Relief (PBV), in the context of Peace Boat’s coordination of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) in Northeast Asia, and with the support of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Global Asia Global Dialogue.

Meri Joyce, GPPAC Northeast Asia Regional Liaison Officer, said in her opening remarks as moderator that sharing of experiences in disaster relief and risk reduction on a regional level, and joint establishment of early warning systems and emergency relief across borders, can have a huge impact on building mutual trust and respect. This can be very important in shifting from a “security paradigm”, based on the balance of power and military alliances, to a “peace paradigm,” based on mutual interdependence and cooperation, she explained. Ms Joyce was joined by three speakers to give their insights into the topic of cross-border cooperation; Ikuno Suzuki, from Peace Boat Disaster Relief (PBV), Abid Hussain from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and Takeshi Komino, General Secretary of CWS Japan, and Secretary General of the Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network (ADRRN).

Ms: Ikuno Suzuki: Crossing Borders

Established in 2011 following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, Peace Boat Disaster Relief (PBV) organizes disaster relief and risk reduction efforts in Japan and overseas. Ikuno Suzuki is the International Project Coordinator currently responsible for PBV’s international relief programs and coordination of international volunteers in disaster-affected areas in Japan. Referencing the theme of cross-border cooperation, Ms Suzuki focused on three borders: regional, psychological and international borders in relation to PBV’s disaster relief work under COVID-19. During the pandemic, PBV has implemented three projects in Japan. Two of these projects, in Iwaki and in Chiba, were already established, and so the projects could be handed over to local partners while carrying out follow-up communications and monitoring online.

Following an extended rainy season, Kumamoto in Southern Japan was hit by severe flooding in July 2020. PBV needed to design new ways of working under the pandemic, as stay home recommendations meant it was not possible to make an open call for volunteers or rely on the network of volunteers built up through past activities. Moreover, the rate of infections in Tokyo, where the PBV main office is located, was much higher than in other regions in Japan. Those affected by the disaster might be uncomfortable receiving assistance from outside their community, in particular from Tokyo. To overcome this psychological border, PBV worked initially with local organisations from a distance, providing mainly material support. Only when an official request was made by the local government was a team sent from Tokyo. Following quarantine periods, the same twelve members stayed for the duration of the project to limit the risk of infection and the stress caused to evacuees, allowing PBV to transcend both regional and psychological borders.

Despite international travel restrictions, PBV has also continued to provide disaster relief outside Japan by organizing fundraising campaigns to support local organisations in the areas affected. These included those affected by bushfires in Australia in early 2020, the environmental impact of an oil spill in Mauritius from the Japanese ship “Wakashio,” and those affected by flooding in Viet Nam. “Here, we work indirectly but in close collaboration with NGOs in those countries”, Ms Suzuki said. In her closing comments, she emphasised that while the pandemic has created challenges, it has also been an opportunity to be creative in sustaining activities.

Dr Abid Hussain: The Era of Regional Cooperation

Abid Hussain, Food Security Economist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), joined the webinar from Nepal to give a perspective from South Asia. His research and policy work focuses on mountain agriculture, food and nutrition security, agrobiodiversity, rural credit and climate change adaptation. Dr Hussain explained that regional cooperation is key for ICIMOD, whose work in the eight countries of the Hindu Kush Himalaya aims ‘to enable sustainable and resilient mountain development for improved and equitable livelihoods through knowledge and regional cooperation’.

The region is particularly prone to natural disasters, so regional cooperation is paramount for risk reduction. At the same time, it is a region where geographical boundaries are politically sensitive. ICIMOD therefore purposefully does not show geographical boundaries on its website or publications. Instead, Dr Hussain explained, “we adopt the river basin approach to boost collaboration across national boundaries on thematic areas and particularly on disaster risk reduction”. Although ICIMOD is an intergovernmental organization it relies not only on cooperation between governments but also brings together scientists, practitioners, civil society and academics to share their knowledge and experience, to be applied in other countries as well.

Under the pandemic, the work of ICIMOD has continued with knowledge sharing and capacity building taking place virtually. Dr Hussein spoke about the COVID-19 pandemic as a non-traditional security risk. Overseas migrants returned to mountain areas, causing high employment and competition for resources, and a risk of conflict. Climate change has also led to an increased probability of competition over water resources, another potential security risk. According to Dr Hussein, most risks facing the region were non-traditional security risks including disasters and poverty, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, and these can only be handled through regional cooperation. Quoting one of ICIMOD’s publications, Dr Hussein said “countries within a region should not view their boundaries as barriers that separate them, rather they should be meeting places where solutions to common problems can be sought”. In his final comments, Dr Hussein emphasised the importance of regional programmes. “Now is not the era of development of countries, it is the era of development of regions. Together, countries can develop, especially if challenges are transboundary and multi-country… one government, one area cannot handle these challenges”.

Mr Takeshi Komino: Coexistence and Collaboration

Takeshi Komino of CWS Japan framed the discussion on cooperation on disasters in Asia by first sharing information about natural disasters in recent years, including the fact that Asia is the region most affected, and most disasters are hydro-meteorological. Talking about the specific challenges in Asia, Mr Komino shared that rainfall patterns are changing due to climate change with increased droughts and flooding, but twentieth century infrastructure is unable to cope with these twenty-first-century problems. In recent years in Japan, floods have become much more prevalent. Like previous speakers, Mr Komino emphasised the importance of cooperation beyond borders, emphasising that “disasters are borderless”. They are “a shared risk, and if we do not have that sense of shared risk, it is impossible to collaborate. So instead of competing, we need to coexist, and these challenges of the twenty-first century are forcing us to coexist”.

In addition to cooperation across borders, Mr Komino spoke of the importance of localisation. In disaster management cycles, every step of the process needs to be localised; from disaster risk reduction, search and rescue, further response to recovery. Indeed, most of the work is already localised but this needs to be recognised and strengthened. Local stakeholders need to play a key role and partnerships with local organisations are critical. This is particularly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic when all actions have had to be localised due to restrictions on movement. Furthermore, because the virus affects people differently based on age and pre-existing health conditions, the response and risk mitigation for COVID-19 need to be personalised down to the household level, Mr Komino explained.

Drawing the linkage between natural disasters and peacebuilding, Mr Komino highlighted the importance of partnerships and collaboration. “A shared sense of urgency, with a collective sense of responsibility based on the principles of partnership, is required”. Referring to Dr Hussein’s statement about the border as a meeting place, Mr Komino said: “That can be done if you have the spirit of collaboration and sense that you are in this together. I would like to take that same spirit to more multisectoral collaboration, civil society actors with academia, with the private sector, with governments, because I think the challenge that we are facing is immense, but the potential is bigger”.

This webinar covered a range of themes including how disaster relief efforts have adapted to working under the pandemic, the impact of climate change, increased disaster risk in Asia, and the need for regional cooperation. Such cooperation and collaboration were key themes, whether across regional or even psychological borders. Furthermore, the necessity of cooperation with local organisations and authorities for successful disaster risk reduction and relief operations was highlighted, particularly during the COVID-19 era. While the pandemic has presented many challenges for those working on issues related to disasters and peacebuilding, it has shown how the importance of cross-border collaboration and cooperation, as well as localisation, particularly when dealing with non-traditional security risks.

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