Commentary: Political tensions make humanitarian aid a tightrope act

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SINGAPORE: The humanitarian community has been challenged by major shocks in the past two years – the COVID-19 pandemic, a military coup in Myanmar, an invasion of Ukraine only the most prominent. These events, together with climate change as a threat multiplier, are changing the operating environment for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations of military forces.

Logistics have proved a major issue. The pandemic hit emergency response particularly hard in terms of deployment of personnel and movement of relief items, from the mass transport of personal protective equipment to careful management of vaccine distribution.

In Myanmar, humanitarian workers had to cope with restrictions caused by both COVID-19 and in the aftermath of the February 2021 military coup. And fighting in Ukraine in recent weeks following Russia’s invasion is a powerful reminder that a humanitarian crisis could break out in unexpected places.

CLIMATE CHANGE THREATENS ACCESSIBILITY

In the long run, the climate crisis threatens the safety and accessibility of infrastructure and facilities for emergency response, with effects projected to become more intense. In Southeast Asia, for instance, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report predicts that the region will have significant increases in extreme weather events, such as heatwaves and strong monsoons.

Moreover, countries and communities which used not to be disaster-prone are now increasingly vulnerable. Several states of Malaysia were hit by deadly floods in December, including some in the central and west coast of the peninsula which are not typically affected.

Existing logistical planning will need to be adjusted. Shifting patterns of disasters will also change the availability and accessibility of infrastructure and equipment for operations.

The Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, for instance, is the world’s most vulnerable to sea level rise. Indonesia is planning to relocate its capital as Jakarta is threatened by climate risks.

The response to the tsunami following the volcanic eruption in Tonga in January was a further example of the difficultly involved with deploying personnel in the field during a pandemic. The Tongan government was reluctant to accept deployment of foreign humanitarian workers due to the concern about COVID-19.