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Effort aims for greater disaster resilience in Asia-Pacific

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia » The Asia-Pacific may be the biggest driver of the global economy, but it is also the runaway leader in a category that no region would covet: natural disasters.

Between 2001 and 2010 the Asia-Pacific had the most natural disasters, along with the highest number of deaths and the biggest economic losses resulting from them, of any area in the world. On average, more than 200 million people in the region were affected per year by disasters during that span, including more than 70,000 killed annually, according to a 2011 report by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Economic losses from disasters are significant. In 2011 the region sustained $294 billion in losses, or 80 percent of the total worldwide, because of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and floods in Southeast Asia, according to a U.N. report.

The National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaii has become one of the forerunners in seeking solutions for the region. The university is the main academic member of the Asia-Pacific Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience, or A.P.D.R.3, network, which grew out of the 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Hono­lulu, hosted by President Barack Obama.

The university is also involved in an initiative to create a new field of study that covers all aspects of natural disasters, an issue that was discussed in June at the A.P.R.D.3 symposium in Yogyakarta, an Indonesian city that is susceptible to earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and lava flows from Mount Merapi, an active volcano.

Academics from the United States, Japan and Indonesia are collaborating on a way to create an academic network that they are calling "Disaster University."

"Something like 80 percent of disasters over the last couple of decades have been in the Asia-Pacific, and one of the problems is we’ve been in response mode and recovery mode and not in preparation mode," said UH President M.R.C. Greenwood. "It became clear that people have to be trained differently, and somebody has to create this new field of disaster resilience, not just disaster management and disaster preparation."

For example, Tohoku University in Japan, which is working with UH, does not have courses covering the psychological and behavioral management side of disaster response.

"They’re great engineers — they’re great at clearing the roads," Greenwood said. "But what they really did not have is a program in their university for training people how to manage the trauma, how to rebuild their lives — not just their buildings, but their lives."

UH chose Indonesia as the focus country for the Disaster University initiative and is working with Gadjah Mada University and the Islamic University of Indonesia, both in Yogyakarta.

Maya Soetoro-Ng, a UH  assistant professor and Obama’s half sister, is involved in the A.P.R.D.3 initiative. She returned to Yogyakarta, where she lived as a child, for the first time in 23 years in June for the symposium.

"Indonesia, given the number of people, the dense location, the persistence and frequency of natural disasters here, had taken some steps already in creating systems that might have long-range potential that involved community engagement, and real demo­cratic input and leadership at every level, to ensure that they would in fact be ready," Soetoro-Ng said.

Mochamad Teguh, dean of the Faculty of Civil Engineering and Planning at the Islamic University of Indonesia, said he recalled having to cancel classes and evacuate the campus when Mount Merapi erupted in 2010, because the university was within a 12-mile danger zone of its lava flows.

At that time university officials began discussing with their Hawaii counterparts how to strengthen Indonesian education on disaster risk resilience, including preparedness, evacuation, trauma healing and disaster response.

"If we are talking about disasters, it’s not only on the engineering side, but a combination of social sciences, psychology, law, medicine and other faculties," Teguh said. "If you look at the map, Indonesia is red. This is our region — we are the most disaster-prone area in the world."

Last December two Indonesian graduate students went to study at UH-Manoa as part of an initiative to create a master’s degree focusing on earthquake engineering management at the Islamic University of Indonesia.

Denise Eby Konan, dean of the College of Social Sciences at UH-Manoa, said the two universities are working to integrate their civil engineering, urban planning, community resilience and economics curricula so they can benefit both engineers and planners. They are also cooperating with Gadjah Mada University and Tohoku University on developing landslide early-warning systems that would link Indonesian communities to U.S. databases at the Pacific Disaster Center in Hawaii. Collaborations with the University of the Philippines, Bicol University, also in the Philippines, and others are in the works.

"Basically, we are networking with the best universities in the region, also located in the highest-risk locations, to better document, categorize, understand and take action," she said.

Twelve faculty members from Indonesian universities are studying disaster risk management at UH with an eye toward how it can be applied to save lives back home.

Exactly how Disaster University evolves remains to be seen. Students from Indonesia, and eventually other countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, will continue to study at UH and the Pacific Disaster Center.

Officials, however, say the next major step will be to develop joint degrees in which U.S. and Asian students can take online courses, and classes in each other’s countries, and apply the credits back home.

"It will be … an intellectual capacity that helps create the field," Greenwood said. "But it might not be a physical manifestation in one place."

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