Published on Arab Voices

Natural disasters in the Arab World: Today’s plan is a shelter for tomorrow’s storm

Kim Eun YeulAt a conference on the margin of the recent Spring Meetings, the bi-annual gathering of finance ministers and central bank governors hosted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, high-level representatives of Djibouti, Yemen and Morocco presented their respective programs for managing risk. Yet the risk they were discussing was the deadly kind, a consequence of the increasing frequency of natural disasters. Disaster Risk Management (DRM) has become a critical component of national policy and planning. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the interplay of natural disasters, together with the impacts of climate change, water scarcity, and urbanization, have emerged as serious challenges for policymaker. While the number of natural disasters around the world has almost doubled since the 1980s, in MENA, the number has almost tripled. In recent years, floods and droughts have been particularly devastating to the region, bringing significant water shortages, economic losses, and adverse social consequences along with numerous fatalities. Earthquakes are the second most prevalent disaster in the region and have impacted lives and livelihoods.

The following provides further evidence of this growing threat to MNA countries and citizens:
  • Although global flood mortality risk has decreased since 2000, in regions like MENA it is still increasing.
  • The number of flash floods and people affected or killed has doubled during the last ten years
  • The percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) exposed to floods has tripled from the period 1970-1979 to 2000-2009.
  • In Djibouti, 120,000 people (50 percent of the rural population) were impacted by the 2011 drought. From 2008-2011, drought caused economic losses equivalent to 3.9 percent of Djibouti’s GDP per annum.
  • In Yemen, the 2008 Hadramout and Al-Mahara floods cost US$1.6 billion, the equivalent of 6 percent of Yemen’s GDP. 

Focusing on proactive disaster risk management contributes to fighting poverty and supporting growth, the two major objectives of the World Bank. In the thirty years from 1980 to 2010, despite different levels of development,  81 percent of disaster events in MENA were concentrated in just six countries—Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Morocco, and the Republic of Yemen. However, across all those countries, the poorest category of the population are the ones most affected, as they have limited resources with which to  adapt and, in many cases, live in areas that are most prone to disasters (i.e. in informal settlements at the outskirt of cities).

MENA’s rapid urbanization is increasing the exposure of people and economic assets to disaster events.The urban population already accounts for 62 percent of the total population and is expected to double in the next three decades. The impact of urbanization is especially important in the region’s coastal areas, where the largest cities and economies are located. Today, approximately 60 million people (about 17 percent of MENA’s total population) live in the region’s coastal areas. But let’s be clear- the issue is not urbanization itself.  The issue is the way the urbanization process is being handled. The rapid growth of informal settlements (which in the case of Djibouti-Ville, the capital of Djibouti, or Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, ranges from between 25% and 50% of the city’s total population) is resulting in greater exposure and vulnerability of the poorest to urban floods and water stress.This further underscores the need for decision makers to focus on cities’ sustainable development and on the capacity of local governments to prepare for and to handle disasters.

At the local level, city managers are not the only ones with key roles to play. Civil society organizations can also contribute significantly to building local resilience. Although MENA countries are still among the most centralized in the world, with some of the lowest total local government expenditures, several countries in the region are progressively moving toward greater devolution of powers to lower tiers of government. This is especially true of   Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen, and. This shift represents an opportunity to strengthen cities, making them more resilient to natural hazards and strengthening their capacity to manage development, and thus support the DRM agenda.

Since 2007, with the support of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), a range of country-level programs have been launched in Djibouti, Morocco, and the Republic of Yemen to increase their resilience to disasters. These programs include activities aimed at improving information availability on disaster risks, developing the policy environment for risk reduction, building capacities in risk reduction through training at the national and local levels, and creating state-led post-disaster recovery and reconstruction programs. In Algeria, Djibouti, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Morocco and Yemen, donor-funded hazard risk assessments have been completed or are ongoing.  Flood recovery projects have been launched in Djibouti and in Yemen, and inter-ministerial steering committees on DRM have been established in Algeria, Djibouti, Morocco, and Yemen.

While a certain level of momentum has been building around DRM in MENA, it has not yet been matched with the integrated approaches required to manage risks effectively. Given the region’s growing exposure to natural hazards, risk reduction challenges are substantial. However, systematically building awareness and institutional capacity at the regional, national and local levels can help minimize risks. This entails taking immediate steps, and taking them collaboratively. Good development planning, informed by risk analysis, will contribute significantly to ensuring development is sustainable, while simultaneously benefitting people’s lives and their livelihoods. So let’s do it now: disaster risk management cannot wait.


Franck Bousquet

Former Senior Director of the Fragility, Conflict, & Violence Group

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