Disaster Management Cooperation in South Asia: Leveraging Nonstate Actors
Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP via Getty Images)

Disaster Management Cooperation in South Asia
Leveraging Nonstate Actors

by Himanshu Grover
April 9, 2022

NBR nonresident fellow Himanshu Grover (University of Washington) argues that given the inherent challenges in regional cooperation in South Asia, it is worth exploring what an effective regional disaster response and risk reduction network architecture looks like.

South Asia is among the regions most affected by all types of natural hazards. All the countries in the region—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—are prone to multiple hydro-meteorological and geological hazards, including floods, landslides, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes, and tsunamis.[1] In the last five decades, the region has experienced increased frequency and intensity of hazardous events. The number of natural disasters in a decade increased from 126 in the 1970s to 406 in the 2010s.[2] The estimated total population affected increased from 420 million in the 1970s to 590 million in the 2010s. Similarly, estimated damages increased from around $26 billion in the 1970s to over $100 billion in the 2010s.

The entire region is also characterized by a low level of institutional capabilities, high economic vulnerability, and greater dependence on primary natural resources.[3] South Asia is experiencing significant population growth, with an estimated population of 1.8 billion in 2018, and likely to add another 800 million people by 2050. With changing climatic conditions, natural disasters are likely to increase further in frequency as well as intensity across the region.

Despite the common challenges faced by the South Asian countries, regional cooperation for disaster management has been limited. While each country has implemented national disaster management frameworks emphasizing pre-disaster planning and risk reduction, a lack of resources and training continues to be a challenge in implementing policies to achieve these goals. Consequently, disaster management remains focused on preparedness and emergency response.

Both disaster preparedness and emergency response in South Asia are dominated by the national armed forces as they possess training in human resources, equipment, and capabilities not available to other agencies and nonstate actors. This is often one of the key challenges in regional cooperation, as each country is wary of inviting neighboring armed forces into their territory. There is also a notable lack of civil-military coordination in this region, with civil actors being viewed as impediments to effective disaster management.

Consequently, bilateral and multilateral agreements to promote the use of foreign defense assets during disasters have had limited success. However, given the likelihood that natural disasters in South Asia will increase, coupled with the growing vulnerability of populations, existing disaster management actors are likely to be further stressed in the coming years.

South Asian nations are faced with a difficult decision. One option is to continue to invest resources in strengthening the existing disaster management frameworks and agencies, which limits the resources available for socioeconomic development. Consequently, most South Asian nations, facing increasing population pressures, will continue to experience heightened vulnerability of their populations to disasters. The alternative is to tap the rich human resources available in the region, which has shown an immense capacity to self-organize and provide meaningful assistance in disaster response. This involves building on shared empathy toward regional neighbors and facilitating public cooperation and partnerships across the national borders. With the increased connectivity through peer-to-peer networks in the region, virtual responders can help guide local preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery efforts, thereby increasing availability of local resources for local actions.


Despite the availability of equipment and trained manpower, no agency can be fully prepared for a disaster event. Transferring resources to the affected communities takes time and effort, which often leaves a demand gap, particularly during preparedness and emergency response. In some instances, this gap is filled by emergent voluntary groups and organizations. Several researchers have documented the spontaneous emergence of such groups and organizations that have actively assisted in search and rescue, collection, transportation, distribution of relief supplies, and provision of temporary shelters for people affected by disasters. Surveys in several countries affected by the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 documented the critical role of private citizens and local groups in providing food, water, clothing, and temporary shelter during the first few days until the arrival of external aid.[4] In Kathmandu, after the April 2015 Nepal earthquake, residents were the first responders rescuing their neighbors from collapsed buildings, providing temporary shelter, food, and water to the affected.[5]

Research across a variety of disasters worldwide has documented this phenomenon where individuals and groups typically become more cohesive and altruistic following a disaster event. In general, communities affected by a disaster do not wait for external assistance but instead become actively involved in response efforts. Despite significant evidence of these emergent individuals and groups playing a critical role in disasters, they are often not supported by the local political and administrative systems. They are instead viewed as a challenge to the established system by those in power and as an organizational challenge by response agencies. Many aid agencies are also reluctant to actively engage with them due to distrust and ignorance of the local social networks.


The spontaneous activities of local volunteers can present significant challenges for coordination, integration, communication, and logistics. These volunteers are often unskilled but eager to help and are primarily learning by doing, which may further exacerbate problems. At times, having too many untrained volunteers can hinder organized search and rescue operations. Consequently, disaster management agencies tend to regard the emergence phenomenon as an obstacle to efficient emergency response. Despite this concern, experiences from several disaster situations suggest that these individuals and groups are critical for filling gaps within the existing disaster response framework.

The core problem is that most disaster management and response plans do not account for local volunteers and emergent groups. They represent a challenge to the official top-down disaster response procedures characteristic of the armed forces, which are given the primary responsibility for disaster response. In practice, however, integration of these emergent groups and individuals can lead to faster and more efficient disaster response. For example, following the Kobe earthquake in 1995, authorities successfully set up working relationships between official organizations and emergent groups and volunteers.[6]

Every disaster situation is unique, and no amount of pre-planning can predict every possibility. Therefore, effective response requires an ability to adapt and improvise in the face of uncertainties. It is in this context that the work of emergent groups and volunteers can provide additional support following a disaster. This can be facilitated by creating coordination and response frameworks that will allow ad hoc groups and volunteers to interface with the formal organizations and agencies.

An example of such a training program is the Citizen Emergency Response Training (CERT) program implemented across various communities in the United States. Experts from fire departments and other agencies train citizens regularly on basic preparedness to augment public safety and other emergency response personnel in the first 24 to 72 hours after a disaster. This training also helps citizens learn critical self-reliance skills to minimize post-disaster needs at the individual as well as the neighborhood level.


With the increasing number of disasters in South Asia, coupled with traditionally strong local social networks, emergent groups and individuals present a unique resource. Through intentional training and coordination, they can be developed into transnational citizen response teams that can operate in partner countries outside the overview of the armed forces. Citizen teams can be called on by partners in other countries to help with response efforts and to aid and support local teams.

Citizen response teams can also be a critical resource for harnessing networks and mobile tools to coordinate actions. These individuals and teams can play multiple roles in disaster management as aid coordinators, information compilers, and remote damage assessors to support the affected community from afar. Recent experiences in various disaster scenarios have revealed that such citizen-led response represents untapped potential that can be utilized with minimal formal coordination.[7] For example, following Hurricane Katrina, ham radio operators in the region took the lead in coordinating rescues and dispatching ambulances. Similarly, online communities emerged as critical actors supporting citizens and response agencies in distribution of humanitarian aid. Global communities facilitated by mobile technology and social media platforms also participated significantly in rescue, relief, and rebuilding efforts following the great deluge in Kerala, India.


Given the inherent challenges in regional cooperation in South Asia, it is worth exploring what an effective regional disaster response and risk reduction network looks like. In recent years, several initiatives have been set up for exploring regional cooperation for disaster risk reduction under the Hyogo Framework for Action, Sendai Framework, National Communication, National Adaptation Programme of Action, and Strategic National Action Plan.[8] Several countries have also set up regional coordination centers. These institutionalized frameworks, however, reflect the national priorities of the member states and are not suitable for citizen response networks.

A virtual citizen-centered network—one with nodes in each of the member countries and that is co-managed by citizen scientists—is a promising network architecture for SAT-CRN. This networking approach will ensure that the diverse actors and institutions that constitute the local disaster response framework can interface without the formal oversight of an administrative organization. It will also encourage mutual learning of good practices from the respective experiences of the multiple local actors. Citizen networks would primarily promote information sharing and knowledge exchange. If needed, they could also effectively facilitate aid and personnel coordination.

A key advantage of SAT-CRN would be its promotion and support for post-disaster recovery and pre-disaster mitigation activities across the region. For example, citizen response teams in Nepal can develop architectural designs for new earthquake-resistant housing while citizen response teams in India work on search and rescue following a major earthquake in the region. Differences in culture and tradition require a nuanced understanding of local conditions by assisting actors. Localized citizen-informed efforts increase community ownership and facilitate culturally appropriate solutions and approaches. Transnational network citizen teams can echo local needs and priorities (based on past experiences), advocating for local interests and values that are often overlooked by external aid agencies in their rush to converge on the affected communities.

Similarly, during periods of respite between disasters, transnational teams can build social outreach and engagement networks to promote individual activities to reduce disaster risk across the region. Research on the impact of social networks suggests that such stakeholder networks can achieve greater adoption of risk-reduction actions among the connected actors than one-way institutional guidance from local authorities. These networks can also support development of common operating and assessment frameworks that will enable effective use of the civilian assets and resources available to the affected communities.

Another advantage of SAT-CRN would be the ability to effectively use social media in disaster situations. Research suggests that social media can be used in multiple ways to support the affected community.[9] The seven ways commonly identified in the literature include listening to public debate, monitoring situations, extending emergency response and management, crowd-sourcing and collaborative development, creating social cohesion, furthering aid, and enhancing adaptive learning.[10] A regional democratic network such as SAT-CRN will be well-positioned to coordinate across multiple social media platforms and effectively use participant oversight to minimize negative outcomes such as dissemination of rumors.


Overall, SAT-CRN is a worthy pursuit because it addresses many of the challenges that have been a barrier to effective disaster response and risk reduction partnerships in South Asia. Resource limitations, lack of mutual trust, and fear of inviting foreign armed forces into a sovereign nation have hampered effective regional cooperation in disaster management. The proposed virtual horizontal citizen-based network will help overcome the historical tensions and geopolitical factors that have hampered disaster response coordination among regional countries. Additionally, local resources can be conserved for direct interventions in the affected communities. This approach maintains respect for the sovereignty of the affected nations and, over time, will build trust between the citizen response groups and local governments. This network could also serve as an efficient and effective interface between the national agencies and nonstate actors in strategic planning for disaster management.

Himanshu Grover is an Assistant Professor in the University of Washington’s Department of Urban Design and Planning and Co-director of the Institute for Hazard Mitigation Planning and Research. His research focuses on reducing losses and enhancing community resilience to extreme events across the world. His approach is rooted in community-based approaches, tools, and methods that allow local actors to lead the effort in enhancing community resilience.


[1] Shesh Kanta Kafle, “Disaster Risk Management Systems in South Asia: Natural Hazards, Vulnerability, Disaster Risk and Legislative and Institutional Frameworks,” Journal of Geography and Natural Disasters 7, no. 3 (2017): 207

[2] This dataset has been calculated and compiled by the author based on raw disaster data published by EM-DAT (International Disaster Database), Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, http://www.emdat.be.

[3] R.K. Mall and R.K. Srivastava, “Sustainable Flood Management in Changing Climate, in Flood Risk Management in South Asia, ed. O.P. Mishra, Mriganka Ghatak, and Ahmed Kamal (New Delhi: SAARC Disaster Management Centre, 2012), 49–66.

[4] John Telford et al., “Joint Evaluation of the International Response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami: Synthesis Report,” Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, July 2006.

[5] Bishnu Devkota, Brent Doberstein, and Sanjay Nepal, “Social Capital and Natural Disaster: Local Responses to 2015 Earthquake in Kathmandu,” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 34, no 3 (2016): 439–66.

[6] Kathleen J. Tierney and James D. Goltz, “Emergency Response: Lessons Learned from the Kobe Earthquake,” University of Delaware, Disease Research Center, 1997.

[7] John Twigg and Irina Mosel, “Emergent Groups and Spontaneous Volunteers in Urban Disaster Response, Environment and Urbanization 29, no. 2 (2017): 443–58.

[8] Rajesh K. Mall et al., “Disaster Risk Reduction Including Climate Change Adaptation over South Asia: Challenges and Ways Forward,” International Journal of Disaster Risk Science 10, no. 1 (2019): 14–27.

[9] William Roth Smith, “Social Media in Citizen-Led Disaster Response: Rescuer Roles, Coordination Challenges, and Untapped Potential,” in Proceedings of the 15th International ISCRAM Conference (Rochester: ISCRAM Association, 2018), 639–48.

[10] David E. Alexander, “Social Media in Disaster Risk Reduction and Crisis Management,” Science and Engineering Ethics 20, no. 3 (2014): 717–33.