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Australia Needs a Comprehensive Approach to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief in the Pacific Islands

08 Feb 2023
By Miranda Booth and Professor Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann
Humanitarian supplies being loaded into MHR90s for transport to Koro island. Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/

Experience has shown that weather and climate change disasters can produce unpredictable and volatile scenarios for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). As events increase in their intensity, a framework for Australia-Pacific Island state cooperation and adaptation is needed more than ever. 

HADR has been a key feature of Australian security cooperation with Pacific Island states for more than a century. The Australian Defence Strategic Update of 2020 raised the importance of and set an objective to enhance HADR in general and in the region in particular. This reflects a trend in the last decade in which Defence has strengthened its efforts to prepare for and respond to humanitarian needs resulting from natural hazards such as tropical cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods. But realising Australia’s new objective may be complicated by more complex and uncertain environments and possibly also by geopolitical competition. To advance its humanitarian objectives, Australia needs a comprehensive, multi-stakeholder approach to actively maintain cooperation, promote coordination, and mitigate the risks of competition in HADR.

Demand for military-to-military coordination in the Pacific Islands is high due to more frequent disaster events and to the growing acceptance of foreign and national militaries in disaster response roles. However, there is no regional mechanism for military-to-military operational coordination. Without predictable coordination arrangements, new international coordination cells must be created on a case-by-case, ad hoc basis, as was the case for the international response to the 2022 Tongan volcanic eruption and tsunami. A further challenge to this coordination is that some emerging HADR actors, such as China, prefer to coordinate only bilaterally with the host government, bypassing all multilateral coordination arrangements. Uncertainty in military-to-military coordination can also delay the efficient delivery of humanitarian relief, as demonstrated during the international response to Cyclone Harold in Vanuatu.

Moving forward, Australia’s HADR activities may take place in more unpredictable and potentially unstable environments. Climate change is accelerating, contributing to more variability in natural weather hazards. These events – tropical cyclones, floods, and droughts, among others, – can occur consecutively, compounding and generating new humanitarian needs and requirements, and stretch international and national civilian response capacities. For example, Fiji was experiencing drought and water shortages (associated with the 2015 – 2016 El Niño) when Cyclone Winston (the strongest recorded cyclone in the Southern Hemisphere) caused flooding and storm surges, and severe damage to housing and agriculture. Climate change and climate-related disasters will affect different Pacific Island states in different ways, and impacts such as lowered resilience and increased vulnerability could mean that HADR operations occur in volatile environments. Alternatively, the politics associated with accepting international assistance may mean that some affected states do not make these requests.

Cooperation in HADR preparedness and response promotes confidence, eases geopolitical tensions, and supports peace and regional stability. However, geopolitical competition also shapes the nature of HADR activities. Australia’s prime minister Anthony Albanese expressed concerns that China’s proposed economic and security pact with Pacific Island states, which included a disaster management initiative, challenged Australia’s role as the region’s security partner of choice. Current strategic assessments in Australia view the broader strategic competition between United States and China as stable, but these assessments can shift easily. In the event that conflict does break out, then Australia’s HADR activities could be limited or become quickly unsustainable. States have suspended HADR cooperation before and history shows us that Australia’s engagement with Pacific Island states, including through HADR, is prone to fluctuate.

The Albanese government has made the Asia-Pacific the focus of its foreign policy with a commitment to balance security with cooperation along critical issues such as climate change, business, and development. HADR by its nature involves both security and humanitarian concerns and is crucial for strengthening rule of law-based societies and partnerships. On this basis, Australia should demonstrate leadership and invest in preparedness and response for HADR while empowering Pacific Island states. One tenable pathway could be for Australia to sponsor and host a military-to-military coordination hub for HADR in the Pacific. The centre could be created in partnership with the Pacific Islands Forum and would have three functions. The first would be preparedness activities, which would include the development of regional doctrine and guidance (which can be adapted to reflect the specific context of the affected state and humanitarian operation), knowledge and training (such as joint exercises that can test and enhance understanding of the roles, responsibilities, and capacities of different civilian and military actors) and information management (including anticipated humanitarian gaps and potential relief tasks in different Pacific Island states. The second is coordination, including specific requests for military assistance that could better support the absorptive capacity of Pacific Island states. The third function would be lessons-learned assessments, including through after-action reviews.

Although defence assistance should remain part of Australia’s engagement with the Pacific Island states, Australia cannot rely solely on its military for successful security cooperation. The development of a capstone on HADR for the Pacific with the inclusion of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Defence could be useful in this sense. It would help to articulate a whole-of-government – plus the civilian sector – approach to HADR to maximise capabilities and resources. Such an approach would also draw on existing Australian disaster relief praxis (such as bushfire and flood response). An Australian operated HADR Centre of Excellence would be a strong signal to the region that it is willing to “address shared opportunities and challenges in our region,” as  Albanese has stated publicly.

Miranda Booth is a researcher in the Northern Institute and Lecturer in the Humanitarian, Emergency and Disaster Management Studies Program at Charles Darwin University.

Sascha-Dominik Dov Bachmann is Professor in Law & Security and Co-Convener National Security Hub (University of Canberra), University of Canberra, and a Research Fellow with the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa, Faculty of Military Science, Stellenbosch University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.