In response to fires breaking out in Htein Pin Dump Site, Hlaing Tharyar Township, Yangon, Myanmar, the ASEAN Emergency Response and Assessment Team (ERAT) was deployed to provide technical support for the Government of Myanmar, and support almost 800,000 citizens affected by the incident. This mission, taking place between the 28th of April and the 2nd of May 2018, became the 23rd ASEAN-ERAT response since the programme’s formation in 2008.

The initial flames sparked on the 21st of April due to excessive heat on piles of non-degradable waste at the dump site located in Western Yangon, with the Government of Myanmar responding quickly to begin overcoming the situation. Anticipating the health risk posed by the resulting smoke, the Public Health Department of Yangon Region quickly launched 24-hour air quality monitoring activities within the vicinity of the dumpsite. Subsequently, on the 25th of April, the regional government released warnings regarding the potential health risk due to smoke from the site. Inter-agency coordination was also activated between the national authorities and surrounding provincial and district authorities.

Given the large coverage of the landfill, as well as the depth of the subsurface embers, taming the fire was extremely challenging – however this was not the only problem. The continuous exposure to smoke and haze was also beginning to cause acute respiratory health problems and disturb livelihoods for citizens living nearby the affected zone. As a result, within two days of receiving the notice for assistance from Myanmar’s Department of Disaster Management (DDM), the AHA Centre and its Governing Board immediately activated the ASEAN-ERAT mission on the 27th of April 2018.

The deployed team was assigned specific objectives, namely to support the DDM in assessing the situation, providing recommendations on fire control strategies, and addressing potential environmental and public health issues. Alongside this, the team was also tasked to identify and recommend resources and capacities that could be mobilised from ASEAN Member States, through AHA Centre facilitation. ASEAN-ERAT Team worked closely with DDM, Yangon City Development Council (YCDC), Yangon Fire Service Department, local police, and military to conduct the rapid assessment.

The ASEAN-ERAT’s recommendations were classified across short-term, urgent measures to isolate fires, as well as to reduce health risks; a medium-term recovery strategy; and long-term mitigation efforts through improved waste-management systems. Almost all of the short-term recommendations were implemented immediately, with significant positive impact and results witnessed within a week. Overall, the fires were brought under control by early May of 2018. Such outcomes could only be achieved through the collaborative expertise of various parties. This included ASEAN-ERAT personnel on deployment – such as staff of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (who provided technical recommendations on firefighting operations and handling of hazardous materials) and ASEAN Secretariat staff from the Philippines (an expert in public health management) – alongside staff from Myanmar’s DDM with their knowledge of local resources and geography, and the AHA Centre’s staff member who served as the In-Country Liaison Team Leader.

Additionally, the Government of Myanmar also welcomed the assistance of the Kingdom of Thailand through bilateral cooperation. The support team consisted of fire fighting specialists and environment specialists from the Royal Thai Armed Forces, Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Industry. During the mission, the ASEAN-ERAT and team from Thailand closely coordinated to exchange information and validate observations and recommendations. While the ASEAN Community has once again demonstrated its solidarity in responding to non-natural disaster, the incident also draws attention to the advantages of having a variety of skills, background and expertise within the current pool of ASEAN-ERAT. As stated by the AHA Centre’s Director of Operations, Arnel Capili, at the end of the deployment, “Sometimes key support is not about helicopters, ships and massive amounts of relief items. It can also be delivered through sound technical advice to mitigate the consequences of a hazard.”

Written by: Shintya Kurniawan | Photo: AHA Centre