source: IRIN news

DUBAI, 26 May 2011 (IRIN) – Several Middle East countries which over the years had failed to prioritize disaster preparedness have established national databases and should now be able to estimate their level of risk and improve response, according to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) Secretariat.

“The region is affected by several hazards: earthquakes, floods, landslides and drought. However, disaster risk reduction has not been a priority for governments until recently,” said Luna Abu-Swaireh, regional programme officer at the Cairo office of the UNISDR. “The commitment is relatively new [and] we have witnessed various progress levels in nations in the region, but overall it is still lower than global levels.”

Some progress has also occurred in policy development. “For the first time this region has a strategy for 2011-2020 that outlines a commitment to reducing risk and vulnerability for the Arab countries and populations by working on multi-hazard approaches, risk assessment, identification and enhancing capacity,” Swaireh told IRIN.

According to a 2010 report by Arab environment ministers, their region has suffered 276 disasters in the last 25 years, in which 100,000 people died, 10 million were affected and 1.5 million left homeless.

The region is at risk of earthquakes because the Jordan rift valley system extends from the Red Sea, through Palestine and north across the Dead Sea and Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. About two-thirds of Jordan’s population, the entire population of Lebanon and a large urban population in Syria live within 50km of a fault line.

Increasing scarcity of water and arable land are also a threat to food security, while flooding in recent years has increased vulnerability. In Syria, for example, an estimated one million people lack food because of drought, especially in the northeast which is home to vulnerable, agriculture-dependent families, according to a 2010 drought vulnerability report on Syria.

Tracking disaster losses

Syria, along with Yemen and Jordan, have developed national disaster loss databases which can be used to analyse extensive risks based on data provided by the country, including case studies, illustrations and background on risk drivers.

“A group of Arab states are now making progress in systematically reporting disaster losses, providing an indispensable empirical [data set],” the ISDR noted in a recent report entitled Revealing Risk, Redefining Development.

Jordan, Syria and Yemen have all recently completed national disaster loss databases and will soon be joined by Egypt and Morocco, it said. Other countries are now in the process of finalizing their databases, while Djibouti and Lebanon are following suit.

These databases are nationally owned, managed, maintained and regularly updated by the respective governments. In Yemen, management is a joint effort between the Ministry of Water and Environment, civil defence, and partners including the UN and the World Bank.

“The impact of disasters on the economics of the Arab countries coupled with the problems they are already facing in terms of poverty, etc., makes it a challenge to engage in disaster risk,” Abu-Swaireh said. “You need to work today on disaster reduction, to make sure your system does not collapse in the face of a disaster.

“Countries like Jordan, Lebanon, [occupied Palestinian territory] and Syria are at very high risk from earthquakes with concentrated populations around fault lines,” he added. “Some countries have undertaken rigorous assessments and linked this to town planning. Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territory have started assessing hospitals for earthquakes and some schools too, but this is still in its early stages.”

A number of specialized agencies in the Arab world, according to the ISDR, have also developed sub-regional early warning systems for specific hazards. According to ISDR, drought has over the years affected the region’s GDP and agricultural production.

“In the last quarter of 2011, we will bring together all relevant stakeholders [government, civil society, private sector] in the region to discuss how we can put the strategies into action, prioritize issues, and invest in risk reduction,” Abu-Swaireh said.

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]