Australians’ magnificent response to the victims of the Asian tsunami has obscured other facets of this crisis, particularly the need for far quicker emergency response to such disasters, and better means of identification of victims.
The overwhelming generosity of both the Australian people and government has hidden the fact that it took about three weeks after the disaster occurred for the Australian supply-ship HMAS Kanimbla, with engineers and heavy equipment, to arrive in Aceh, the worst affected region.
It took almost two weeks before helicopters were able to get emergency food and clothing to some devastated communities in Sumatra, largely because Australia has too few helicopters, and America’s were just too far away. No doubt large numbers of people who survived the earthquake and tsunami died shortly afterwards because it was not possible to get emergency aid to them sufficiently quickly.
As in previous natural disasters, the defence forces have shown themselves to be both willing and able to respond as quickly as their capabilities permit; but this role has never been part of Australia’s strategic doctrine, and so their response times have been frustratingly slow.
As the Prime Minister said in announcing Australia’s very generous $1 billion aid program for Indonesia, this country stands willing to assist victims of emergencies, particularly in the nations of our immediate region. Unfortunately, that commitment has not been matched by forward planning to enable Australia to respond fully to such crises.
The tsunami highlights the urgent need to build into Australia’s defence forces ready response teams to assist in such emergencies, just as we have ready response forces to deal with terrorism and other threats to Australia’s national security.
One element of this is the need to spend more money to increase the number of supply-ships in the Australian Navy, heavy-lift helicopters capable of rapid deployment for both military purposes and regional emergencies, and recruitment of the qualified personnel needed to meet these situations.
Separately, the Federal Government – like governments in other countries – will have to look closely at better means of identifying Australians caught up in these disasters.
It is simply not good enough that, two weeks after the emergency, there were over 100 Australians still unaccounted for.
It is no consolation to know that at the time of writing, about three weeks after the disaster, there were 440 British citizens and about 900 Scandinavians still missing or dead.
For Australia, this is the second time in a little over two years that large numbers of her citizens have been involved in a regional disaster. If the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta had achieved the intention of the Islamist terror network, Jemaah Islamiah, there would have been three. Will we go through the same period of confusion the next time it happens?
What is lacking is information about Australians travelling around the world.
One reason why airlines are able to identify people about their aircraft is that all flights have a passenger manifest, which is compiled as passengers board their flights.
It would assist the government to identify Australians quickly if, before setting out on overseas trips, every traveller had to supply an itinerary, in standard format, which could provide a database for use in such emergencies.
It is true that some people change their travel plans while outside Australia; but it is better to be 90 per cent right, than to deal with a situation where at the time the disaster struck, there was no information available as to who was in Phuket in Thailand, or Galle in Sri Lanka, or other locations devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.
It would be relatively easy, and inexpensive, to require travel agents and/or passengers to provide an itinerary electronically, in standard format, for international travellers, which would be lodged before departure from Australia.
Further, there is a growing case for Australian passport-holders to supply a DNA sample, for DNA typing in a central database, to expedite rapid identification of Australians caught up in such tragedies.
While DNA typing is widely used in crime investigation, most people do not realise that it is already extensively used in other fields. For example, the CSIRO, in collaboration with Macquarie University, has developed a prototype parentage testing system for sheep based on DNA markers. This technology has now been licensed to SignaGen, a leading DNA-testing company in New Zealand, which performs many thousands of such tests every year.
With such a system, DNA analysis could be performed in hours or, at most, days, instead of weeks or months as at present.
However, none of this will happen unless there is a willingness to learn the lessons of the recent tragic events in Asia. We would be naïve to believe that it will not happen again.
- Peter Westmore is president of the National Civic Council.