Last year, the Asia Pacific region continued to be the most disaster prone region in the world. Severe flooding affected India, Indonesia, and Japan, while the Nepal earthquake devastated Kathmandu. Experts warn that climate change will cause cyclones, epidemics, and severe flooding, which will plague the region with increasing intensity. What these disasters continue to teach us is that international partnerships and civil-military cooperation are more important than ever.
After Cyclone Marian swept across Bangladesh in 1991, the United States proudly assisted the Bangladeshi government-led response effort. Never before had the world seen such a swift and inclusive civil-military response to a disaster as Operation Sea Angel, which to this day remains one of the world’s largest civil-military disaster relief efforts.
As Operation Sea Angel’s U.S. commander Lt. Gen. Henry Stackpole stated in 1991, the Bangladeshi government had ample supplies stockpiled in preparation for the disaster; the challenge was distributing them to isolated areas and islands cut off from the mainland. With the aid of Bangladeshi military and civilian agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and military forces from the United States and other partner nations, relief supplies reached the most vulnerable populations in a timely and efficient manner. Additionally, organizations like the U.S. Agency for International Development, Feed the Children, UNICEF, and countless others remained in Bangladesh to aid recovery long after the military departed.
In fact, the efficiency and synchronization of the civil-military cooperation during Operation Sea Angel was so groundbreaking that in 2011 William Milam, U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh from 1990-1993, said, “The cooperative model we put together for Sea Angel is a model that the military and the civilian side of our government have been using ever since.”
Bangladesh remains a model for many other reasons. Despite the vulnerability of Bangladesh to cyclones and other natural disasters, the country has made significant progress in improving its disaster preparedness. Moreover, the country stands as a regional example of the courageous progress that can be made by a nation, and time-tested civil-military relationships stand ready to support the government if they need assistance.
These ties were again tested in 2007 when Cyclone Sidr ravished Bangladesh. However, this time the capacity and capabilities built within government agencies since 1991 dramatically reduced the devastation and loss of life.
It is with these ever-present disasters in mind that my staff and I strive to maintain our strong partnership with the civil-military community in Bangladesh. The inclusion of organizations like the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the World Food Program in bilateral U.S.-Bangladesh military exercises bring the unique skills and expertise of each of these organizations to the table and help promote vital coordination needed in the aftermath of a disaster.
Close coordination between civilian and military communities is essential for numerous reasons. First, it speeds response and recovery by utilizing the best and most appropriate assets where they will do the most good. This allows relief personnel to reach devastated, remote locations with assets like helicopters tailored to the task, while other resources are used in more accessible areas. Coordination also prevents duplication of efforts and the waste of life-saving time and money. Finally, it promotes the timely flow of information from the host nation government down to assisting state units and agencies and ultimately, to the people in the different communities.
All of these components add up to one outcome – lives saved. That is why, as we move into an uncertain future of stronger and more frequent disasters, civil-military coordination prior to a disaster has become ever more critical. It saves lives before, during, and after a disaster becomes a reality.
In Bangla (PDF 501 KB)