Jordan Ryan: Arab Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction

Mar 20, 2013

Jordan Ryan, Director of the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery in the United Nations Development Programme

Opening Remarks by Jordan Ryan -  Director of the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery in the UNDP at the Arab Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Aqaba, Jordan

Your Royal Highness Princess Somaya,
Special Representative Wahlström,
Ambassador Winzap,
Chief Commissioner Mahadin (ASEZA),
Dr. Samir Ghazi (President Deputy for Environmental Affairs, Saudi Arabia)
Ms. Shahira Wahbi (Chief of Sustainable Development and International Environmental Cooperation)
Distinguished Ambassadors,
Government Representatives,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

This conference is being held at a time when the Arab region is experiencing a transition stirred by a desire for dignity; and concerns for economic and social wellbeing.

So it is appropriate that we are having this discussion today – because disaster risk reduction is integral to these ideas.

In many ways the Arab region is a model for development, having made impressive strides in health, education, literacy and economic growth in the past few decades.

Disasters, however, have the power to put these hard won achievements at risk.

And indeed, we have seen this happen in many Arab countries.

Recent floods in Sudan and Lebanon; droughts in Iraq, Syria, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan and Morocco; recurring forest fires in Lebanon; storms in Oman and the 2003 earthquake in Algeria are reminders of how vulnerable this region is.
And – as in other parts of the world, it is the poor who suffer most from disasters. They account for 95 per cent of the 1.3 million disaster fatalities around the globe in the last two decades. And in developing countries - because of existing inequities - it is the most marginalized, including women and girls, who suffer the greatest impact when catastrophe strikes.

Weak systems for disaster preparedness are as much to blame for disasters as the natural phenomena that cause them. The colossal losses from the Jeddah flooding of 2011 are a close reminder about the consequences of weakness in urban planning and disaster preparedness.

And the importance of disaster preparedness is becoming more and more acute:

  • The urban population of the Arab region is already very high – at about 56 per cent – and up to 87 per cent in places like Lebanon – and it is getting higher - growing at a much faster rate than the overall population
  •  This region may be rich in energy resources, but it suffers from a scarcity of life supporting natural resources, including water, agricultural land and forests. These are just the resources that are expected to get scarcer under the combined impact of climate change, population growth, and urbanization
  • And the conflict of the region has a role to play in increasing disaster risk. Along with poverty, it is one of the key drivers of rural-urban migration in the Arab region and the establishment of shanty towns, which host the most vulnerable social groups
  • Arab cities are a major source of economic and human development. However, many of these cities are located in areas that are highly vulnerable to environmental and geological disasters. Algiers, Aqaba, Amman, Beirut, Casablanca, Damascus, Djibouti, Gaza, and Tunis sit on active fault-lines. Alexandria, Khartoum, Sana and Jeddah remain vulnerable to flooding
  •  Climate change will see the coastal cities of the Mediterranean facing new hazards in the form of coastal inundation, erosion, storms and saltwater-intrusion. Some existing hazards may become more frequent and intense
  • Urban planning, infrastructure and services have not kept pace with the fast growth in urban population, which increases the exposure of urban populations to disaster risks; and
  • Weak urban planning and management has also led to the depletion of natural resources including water, land, green belts and swamps, which has further aggravated the risk of disasters

 But it doesn’t have to be like this.

 What we call “natural” disasters are not actually natural at all.

A natural hazard only becomes a disaster when measures to mitigate its impact are lacking. We do not have to resign ourselves to the devastation that disasters cause, nor see them as exceptional events that interrupt normal development.

When governments establish institutions for disaster risk reduction, lives and property are saved.

What is needed is a deliberate approach to looking at and planning for crises.

Every dollar spent on preparing for disasters saves around seven dollars in economic losses that would result without such preparation. Investing in disaster preparedness before a natural hazard occurs reduces the need for humanitarian action.

Arab cities need to meet the challenges resulting from unprecedented rural-urban migration, population growth, natural disasters and climate change. I am pleased to say that the city of Aqaba - our host city - under the leadership of Aqaba Special Economic Zone Development Authority is doing just that. It has understood the importance of better urban governance, planning and disaster preparedness. With support from UNDP, the city has established a system that is addressing the challenges of disaster risk, improving the safety of citizens, investment and infrastructure. The city has:

  •  Improved disaster preparedness coordination by establishing a Disaster Risk Reduction Unit
  • Used seismic risk analysis in its land-use management decisions to determine the safest places to put new buildings and infrastructure
  • Run large-scale education and awareness campaigns to improve general awareness about personal safety and disaster preparedness
  • Relocated vulnerable villagers from a flood and earthquake prone area to a safer location

The need for investing in urban disaster risk reduction is urgent. I am glad to note that about 270 cities from Arab States have enrolled in the UN-ISDR’s Making Cities Resilient Campaign. However, there are many more cities that need to get involved.

The effort required to reduce disaster risks is sometimes time-consuming. However, it doesn’t have to be costly. Small but well-thought out investments and partnerships can achieve significant long-term results. UNDP has had success by training local community members to monitor their own flood risk by measuring and reporting on local river levels. All this requires is a measuring stick, a mobile phone and some training.

Disaster risk reduction saves lives, and the economic costs of property damage far outweigh the costs of preparedness, through – for example – making buildings strong enough to withstand disasters.

Bangladesh is one of many countries in the world that have proved the truth of this statement. In 1970, a cyclone there killed about 500,000 people. The government established the Cyclone Preparedness Programme to reduce the loss of life from future cyclones. In 2009, the last year that a cyclone of similar intensity to the 1970 storm hit the country – it killed 113 people. The Cyclone Preparedness Programme, which has built shelters, made areas flood resistant, raised community awareness and issued warnings, is responsible for this massive fall in deaths. Arab cities can do the same and some are already making steps to do so.

I believe that drafting an Arab Declaration on Disaster Risk Reduction in Cities, endorsed by participating mayors, governors and national authorities would be a step in right direction towards promoting safety and prosperity in a sustainable manner in the Arab region.

I hope you give this idea serious consideration today.

With that said - it is my pleasure to welcome you to the First Arab Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.

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