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USACE Trains Former Warsaw Pact Nations in Disaster Response

On Feb. 18, 1911, an earthquake 7.4 in magnitude violently jarred Tajikistan in Central Asia, triggering a massive rockslide into the Murgab River valley. The rockslide completely obstructed the flow of the Murgab River, which is a headwater tributary to the largest river in Central Asia. The rockslide formed a natural dam, which, at 1,970 feet, is the largest in the world. (By comparison, the man-made Hoover Dam within the states of Nevada and Arizona is a “mere” 726 feet high.) If that dam was to fail, international experts say it would potentially be the worst natural disaster in human history affecting millions of people in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. The country of Azerbaijan, on the other hand, faces a very different threat from the Caspian Sea. A cruise ship collides with an oil tanker in the Caspian Sea, releasing millions of gallons of oil in the midst of missing, injured, and dead passengers from the cruise ship.

How well are these countries prepared and equipped to respond to such disasters? How are the dead and injured accounted for? What mitigation measures are in place to protect life and property? How will these countries communicate with the outside world and deal with international media interest and public scrutiny possibly for the first time?

Training developing nations like Tajikistan and Azerbaijan how to respond to national disasters is the primary mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Military Emergency Preparedness Program (CMEP). CMEP focuses on international partner nations’ national and regional strategies related to disaster preparedness and consequence management for all hazards (natural and man-made) in areas that include Africa, South America, Asia, Europe, and Pacific nations.

Tajikistan Delegation participates in a table-top exercise utilizing Geographic Information Systems tools as members respond to a simulated failure of the world’s largest natural dam located in the mountains of Tajikistan. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo

The objectives for a typical table-top exercise normally include enhancing disaster management capabilities, improving host nation and U.S. government agency synchronization, cooperation, partnerships for disaster response, and how to deal with international media and public interest during a national crisis that spans its borders. Small countries like Tajikistan and Azerbaijan that have government-run news outlets rarely have to deal with international media and public interest. But what if the world’s largest natural dam were to fail flooding millions of people in five different countries? What if dead and injured people from other countries washed up on the shores of Azerbaijan? When these kinds of questions are posed to the senior leaders of these countries, they begin to realize they may not be so immune to international scrutiny as they once thought.

The first couple of days are always spent presenting and sharing information among the participants that will prove useful during the table-top exercise. The host country normally explains how its current emergency response framework functions so the national organizations and ministries and the U.S. Delegation can fine tune the scenario to test the functionality of its system. Participants from the U.S. Delegation then present information on how the United States responds to national emergencies so the host country can begin thinking about incorporating best practices into its existing system.

One of the more popular emergency response tools applied during these exercises is Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS is commonly defined as a system of hardware and software used for storage, retrieval, mapping, and analysis of geographic data including the people who operate the system. Spatial features are stored in a coordinate system, such as latitude and longitude, which references a particular place on Earth. In the context of CMEP, GIS is being used by emergency managers, first responders, government officials, and specialists to visualize the emergency situation, increase response capabilities to save lives and property, analyze existing and future impacts of a disaster, and assist in making critical decisions.

Information on how the United States responds to national emergencies was presented to a Tajikistan Delegation during a training exercise held May 10-13, 2011. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo

The CMEP program incorporates GIS into almost all of its events, and also features stand-alone GIS activities that leverage the technology to benefit partner nations’ emergency response and recovery capabilities. For example, at a recent Azerbaijan CMEP event, GIS was used to help better understand the impacts of an oil spill in the Caspian Sea. Data on water levels, currents, ship passage, oil pipelines, vegetation, coastal structures, and human geography were compiled into a central GIS database and then the layers were analyzed for vulnerabilities, patterns, and trends. During the exercise, GIS was displayed as a common operating picture so that all participants could visualize the spill and realize the impacts of its movement as it neared the capital city of Baku. “I think it helped the exercise participants understand the situation, and showcased how simple analytical processes visualized on a map can help those involved in responding to a disaster make rapid and accurate decisions,” said Justin Pummell, CMEP program manager, Asia-Pacific region.

The overall CMEP Warsaw Initiative program is led by Diane Acurio. “This program really tests the limits of disaster response for these countries and they’re getting quite good,” said Acurio. “These exercises are designed to improve the ability of the host country and its neighbors to prepare for and respond to all hazards.” CMEP’s origins derive from the end of the Cold War, when the Office of the Secretary of Defense saw a need, as well as an opportunity, to help improve the capability of former Warsaw Pact countries in Europe and Central Asia. By providing mutual assistance and improved regional response through increased inter-ministerial coordination within countries, CMEP assists with planning for and managing the consequences of all types of natural and man-made disasters. USACE has led this effort since 1998. Since 1999, more than 90 events have taken place in more than 30 countries in the Balkans, Baltic, Caucasus, Central Asia, and Central European regions. CMEP also supports regional groups, such as the Southeast Europe CMEP Council.

This article first appeared in the 2011-2012 edition of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces publication.