Nearly 300 government officials, scientists, aid workers and activists from across the Arab world are working together in Jordan to draw up the first joint regional platform for disaster risk reduction (DRR).
In the last three decades more than 164,000 people in the region have been killed by natural hazards, which caused damage estimated at US$19.2 billion, according to new figures for the region from the Belgium-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).
“All the people who are here now - they’ve been waiting for this for a few years. The conference has been scheduled and rescheduled, so there’s a pent up wish to discuss and tackle issues upfront,” Margareta Wahlstrom, special representative of the UN Secretary-General for DRR, told IRIN, blaming the Arab Spring for the delays.
The week of meetings is being held in Jordan’s coastal port, Aqaba, recognized as a leader in disaster preparedness in the region and one of many urban centres built on one of the four main regional fault lines - the Dead Sea Transform Fault, the Taurus-Zagros fault, the Nubia-Eurasia plate boundary in Maghreb and the NU-Aegean Sea and NU-Anatolia in Eastern Mediterranean region.
Conference speakers acknowledge that the region has been “lucky” in recent years to escape major natural hazard events, but historic records show cities like Beirut, Damascus and Alexandria have all been destroyed by earthquakes.
While the natural hazards may not be new, the risks have been aggravated in recent years by the nature of human development.
“In a relatively short period a number of crucial factors have magnified the exposure and vulnerability of cities in the Arab region to disaster and its aftermath,” said Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, president of the Jordanian Royal Scientific Society.
“The explosive increase in urban populations in recent decades, coupled with poor planning in land use, has expanded the potential of hazard to cause havoc in our cities.”
Around 55 percent of the population in the Arab world lives in cities, a figure predicted to reach 68 percent by 2050.
Prevention not cure
Disaster experts at the conference credit the Indian Ocean Tsunami disaster of 2004 with opening eyes internationally to the importance of preparing in advance for natural hazards.
Previously, Wahlstrom told IRIN, such disasters were thought of as things over which you had little control: “you deal with the immediate consequences, you rebuild, you pay for it and you move on.”
But she says governments increasingly realize that natural disasters happen when natural hazard events meet vulnerable and unprepared populations.
“You actually have to plan for it; you can mitigate the impact, and you can mitigate the costs.”
In early 2005, countries around the world signed up to the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), which set five priorities over the 10-year period to 2015 for countries to strengthen institutional responses, set-up early warning systems, identify risks and build resilience at all levels.
It was the world’s first attempt to coordinate who should be in charge of what in a disaster.
Sometimes experience has shown itself to be the best teacher; Algeria improved building regulations for schools and hospitals after damage caused by the 2003 earthquake, while Lebanon - a regional leader on DRR - set-out to improve disaster management coordination after a recent plane crash saw four emergency operations rooms set up in the first four hours, but without any coordination between them.
This is the first Arab conference on DRR, and the region is the last to meet ahead of a global DRR conference in Geneva in May, at which countries will plan the post-2015 strategies for resilience when the current Hyogo framework will need replacing.
What changes all this will have on the ground will depend on implementation, and so far Arab countries have been slow to put in place measures to improve preparedness; only nine of the region’s 22 countries have set up, or are setting up, a national loss database, while just 10 have submitted their HFA country reports to the UN Office for DRR (UNISDR).
“To be very honest with you, I share your fear that many of these things are paper products,” said Wahlstrom at the event’s press conference. “But when I look back at the conferences that we’ve had over the years, I see a very high level of coherence between the recommendations and commitments, and what people actually do.”
Disaster experts at the conference stress that investing in prevention is a way to save money in the country; that a dollar spent on prevention is worth at least four after a crisis.
Natural disasters are often extraordinarily expensive - the floods that hit Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 2008 and 2009, for example, cost about $1.3 billion.
In addition, unprepared countries face far longer recovery times and affected cities and regions can be set back by years.
The Lebanese government’s decision to prioritize preparedness dates back to the destruction caused by the earthquake in Haiti, which was witnessed first-hand by officials from the prime minister’s office.
“The challenge is to convince governments to pay for what is not yet tangible, but which will become tangible in the coming years,” said Wahlstrom.
Just published figures from CRED show natural hazards have cost the world more than $100 billion a year for the past three years.
The Arab League has led the adoption of DRR in the region, and in 2012 it produced a strategy adopted by regional heads of state.
But Fatma Al-Mallah, DRR advisor and member of the Global High Level Advisory Group on HFA2, says more engagement is needed.
“This is not enough - there should be a political commitment from each government. We should have more political courage in our countries when we have problems.”
She warned governments that natural hazards such as drought were frequently an underlying cause of political unrest, citing Darfur and the Arab Spring as examples, and said that a lack of good governance on these issues risked bringing instability at the lowest levels of society.
Jordan Ryan, director of the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery at the UN Development Programme, said natural disasters invariably affect the most vulnerable.
“Forest fires in Lebanon and earthquakes in Algeria are all reminders of how vulnerable this region is. As in other parts of the world, we know who suffers the most - the poor.”
He said 95 percent of the 1.3 million disaster fatalities around the globe in the past two decades were the poor.
“Weak systems for disaster preparedness are as much to blame as the natural disasters that cause them,” said Ryan.