A group of 35, mostly Territorial Army (TA), officers and soldiers from the Military Stabilisation Support Group (MSSG) spent most of November 2011 on Exercise Civil Bridge 11 in the wetlands of Botswana’s vast Okavango Delta.
They deployed to the southern African republic, at the invitation of the Office of the President, to carry out an independent assessment of the National Disaster Management Office’s Disaster Risk Management Plan which meant assessing the government’s preparedness for disasters and emergencies such as flooding, fires and air accidents.
They were also asked to run a civil-military co-operation course to train the Botswana Defence Force in how to assist the government in any civil disaster.
The MSSG personnel were joined on the deployment by civilians from the UK Government’s Stabilisation Unit which employs specialists from the Department for International Development, the MOD and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who are able to deploy to fragile and conflict-affected states. They took part in the exercise to provide civilian input and replicate the working relationships found on operations.
The Okavango Delta region of Botswana is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site and is a unique habitat for birds and wildlife. It is the main tourist destination in the country for safaris, and the people who live along the Okavango River and on the delta itself make a living from fishing and agriculture in the only part of Botswana not covered by the Kalahari Desert.
The whole area is susceptible to flooding on a cyclical basis and this has seen people being displaced from their homes, and roads, crops and cattle being damaged and destroyed by floodwater.
With most members of the MSSG working in their civilian careers as specialists in stabilisation skills in areas such as civil engineering, telecommunications, emergency planning and construction, they were ideally placed to contribute to the National Disaster Management Plan and to see if it could be implemented at national, district and right down to village level.
To carry out the assessment, the group was split into four stabilisation teams based in the capital city, Gaborone, the main north west town of Maun, which is the district capital of Ngamiland on the Okavango Delta, and two towns along the Okavango River: Gumare and the northernmost town in the country, Shakawe, near the border with Namibia.
An exercise HQ was also based in Maun. Team members went out every day to speak to national and local government officials, planners, village chiefs and ordinary members of the community to assess what their roles would be in the event of a disaster and to see what improvements could be made, if any, to the co-ordination.
Exercise Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lex Agathangelou, said that it was excellent training for members of the MSSG as well as providing a vital piece of work for the government and the people of Botswana. He added:
The primary aim of Exercise Civil Bridge 11 has been to train members of the MSSG in their basic stabilisation skills, in a fairly harsh and basic but benign environment, to emulate as much as possible what they might encounter on operations.
It is also going to be a great help to the government as we will be able to present them with an independent assessment of what they are capable of now, and some recommendations which they will then be able to work on. The exercise will be of benefit to everyone in Botswana as well as MSSG personnel.
The Royal Engineers were heavily represented on Exercise Civil Bridge 11. The nature of MSSG’s work means that engineers are a vital part of the unit, but they were also augmented by two TA and two regular Army members of 170 (Infrastructure Support) Engineer Group who were able to assess the country’s physical infrastructure and provide expert analysis on improvements that could be made.
The Stabilisation Unit (SU) members also benefited from the exercise. The Deputy Head of the SU’s Civilian Stabilisation Group, Cathryn Hannah, was one of the participants. She said:
This exercise has been a fantastic opportunity for the group’s members to train with the military so they can build relationships and test the skills they will need when they deploy for real.
For me personally it was a great chance to work in a military team and at the same time learn so much about disaster management in Botswana.