Join hands to handle disasters: Asean chief

Zubaidah Nazeer Straits Times 19 Jan 13;

JAKARTA - The severe flooding in Jakarta shows the need for Asean nations to work together to protect the environment and prepare for such disasters, especially in the face of climate change, says the group's new Secretary-General, Mr Le Luong Minh.

"How to overcome the effects of climate change and the issue of environmental protection are always high on the Asean agenda," he said, in an interview at his office in the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta yesterday, noting that many Asean countries are prone to climate-change effects of extreme weather.

The Jakarta disaster comes just 10 days after the Vietnamese diplomat took over as Asean Secretary-General from Dr Surin Pitsuwan, a former foreign minister of Thailand.

Fortunately for Mr Minh, the secretariat is not in a flooded area of the capital. Therefore, he has been able to proceed with his busy schedule of engagements and meetings with diplomats, business leaders and state visitors.

But he said the flooding was evidence of the effect of extreme weather patterns and noted that Asean countries are vulnerable to them.

Parts of Vietnam's own coastline face erosion and some of its regions are below sea level and, thus, also in danger.

"My own country is one of four countries with the highest (risk) of falling victim to rising sea levels," Mr Minh said, adding that at least a quarter of its 90 million population could be affected, if not displaced.

Other Asean nations have also experienced natural calamities recently.

Last month, a tropical storm killed more than 1,000 people in the southern Philippines.

Monsoon rains have also drenched areas along Malaysia's west coast.

Asean's Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management, or AHA Centre, has been set up to coordinate information on regional disasters and provide help.

Last Saturday, it saw the official launch of a state-of-the-art disaster response and monitoring system.