Last January, a severe weather storm swept through Egypt, Jordan, Gaza and the West bank, Syria, and Lebanon. The flooded streets and scores of displaced people it left behind showed that the region is still insufficiently prepared to manage natural disasters. Also in January, record breaking snow fall in Amman, Jordan, overwhelmed the city’s drainage system, with the resulting floods trapping residents in their homes. In the Zaatari refugee camp, north of the Jordanian capital, hundreds of tents were destroyed, leaving thousands of Syrian refugees with no shelter. In the past years, storms have disrupted traffic in the Suez Canal and forced Egyptian authorities to close down the port of Alexandria, multiple fatalities have been reported in Lebanon due to severe weather, and sandstorms are increasingly affecting Gulf countries, shutting down airports, schools and cities.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is no stranger to severe weather – floods, earthquakes and multi-annual droughts have been on the rise. While the number of natural disasters around the world has almost doubled since the 1980s, in MENA it has almost tripled. Rapid urbanization, water scarcity, and climate change have all aggravated the impact of natural disasters and created new development challenges for the region.
Floods are the most recurring disaster in MENA, and they take a heavy toll. The 2008 floods in the governorates of Hadramout and Al-Mahara in Yemen caused US $ 1.6 billion in damages and losses, the equivalent of six percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Earthquakes are the second most prevalent disaster in the region, but equally damaging, with Algeria and Iran being the most affected and most at risk. Droughts also cause significant economic stress. The 2008 to 2011 drought in Djibouti caused the economy to contract by 3.9 percent of GDP each year.
Disasters strike cities especially hard, with the informal communities being particularly vulnerable. 62 percent of the total population of MENA lives in cities and this figure is expected to double by 2040. Informal settlements will grow along with cities, leaving more and more people exposed to the full impact of natural disasters.
Most of the region’s largest cities and economies are in coastal areas, where the risks are even greater. Approximately 60 million people, about 17 percent of MENA’s total population, live in cities along the coast. The threat of a rise in sea levels is ever present, and the consequences are severe. In Egypt, a one meter rise in sea level is estimated to put 12 percent of the country’s agricultural land at risk. These challenges are worsened by extreme water shortages. MENA is the most water scarce region in the world, with fresh water resources per capita shrinking from 4,000 cubic meters (m3) per year in the 1950s, to 1,100 m3 per year today. Already limited fresh water resources are expected to be reduced by a further half by 2050. This is alarming compared to the global average of 8,900 m3 per person per year today and about 6,000 m3 estimated for 2050.
Over the past decade, governments in the region have developed a better understanding of the risks posed by natural disasters and the measures needed to prepare for them. There are promising signs of proactive efforts to expand the capacities to manage the effects of natural disasters. It is a promising start but far from the integrated approach needed, including systematic risk assessment, early warning, and emergency funding.