Published on Eurasian Perspectives

Investing in preparedness – the best protection against disaster

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If you are a parent in Armenia, what worries you more: getting a better education for your kids or ensuring their safety in school?
For countries like Armenia – prone to disasters such as earthquakes, and with vulnerable housing and school building stock – this is not a rhetorical question! It’s a problem that parents seriously worry about and governments grapple with.
Armenia has always been vulnerable to earthquakes. The devastating Spitak tremor in 1988 took 25,000 lives, injured another 19,000 people, damaged half a million homes, and caused a US$15-20 billion loss to the country’s economy. More than two-thirds of that tragic human toll in 1988 was children – with most school-age children sitting in class when the quake struck.
After the Spitak earthquake in Armenia
After the Spitak earthquake in Armenia, 1988. 
Photo credit: Nancy Kricorian
While it is true that disasters generally occur unannounced, risks can nevertheless be managed in order to reduce the loss of lives, homes, infrastructure, and economic activity. But, governments have difficult choices to make: should they spend scarce investment resources on preparing for disasters, forgoing other top priorities, or should they hope for the best and deal with the consequences after disaster strikes?
In Armenia, we are now seeing a stronger recognition that natural hazards threaten the country’s development, and a shift to prioritizing disaster risk management. This move toward proactive disaster risk reduction has seen a wide range of stakeholders – communities, government agencies, donors – mobilize together. Disaster preparedness and risk management requires capacity, finance, knowledge, information and cooperation, and no government can succeed alone; it takes a strong partnership.
As the global momentum for managing disaster risk through awareness and prevention has grown, the World Bank and other international partners have stepped in to support Armenia’s communities and government efforts. Armenia has chosen to make seismic safety of schools a top national priority, noting the large number of schools that remain highly vulnerable to seismic hazards, and support from partners is steadily growing.
A long-running World Bank-financed community development project has rehabilitated 110 schools and 36 kindergartens to higher seismic standards, while the Bank’s education project is currently retrofitting 17 high schools nationwide.
With support from the Government of Japan through the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), the World Bank is also providing technical support to the Government’s Safer School Improvement Program, with the help of the German Government through GFDRR’s Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF). Support includes the development of planning, design, construction and retrofitting guidelines and training of engineers in Government and Armenia’s private construction industry.
Under the new safer school program, the Government aims to improve more than 370 schools during the period 2015-2025, protecting close to 150,000 of Armenia’s children. In 2015, the Asian Development Bank committed US$88.5 million to this long-term initiative, financing the seismic strengthening of 46 schools and improving the response capacity of schools in the event of a disaster.
Children at school
At a school in Armenia, kids are taught about disaster preparedness.   
Photo credit: World Bank Armenia
Other partners, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), have contributed support in seismic hazard mapping, awareness campaigns, development of crisis management centers and 911 call services, and simulation exercises and training for government staff.
Reducing the losses from future disasters requires not only brick-and-mortar investments like those being made in Armenia’s schools; it also requires institutions.

On January 19 th of this year, the Armenia National Disaster Risk Management Program was launched in Yerevan, funded by the Government of Japan and other donors through GFDRR and with technical support from the global Disaster Risk Management Hub in Tokyo.

Let me briefly unpack what disaster risk management means. It is the strengthening of government institutions so that they can work and cooperate better with each other, and includes the improvement of disaster risk identification and information. It is also the reduction of disaster risks; think about the number of lives that can be saved by building resilient infrastructure and facilities - schools, kindergartens, apartments, hospitals, roads, etc., and by reinforcing those that are currently vulnerable.

Disaster risk management also focuses on preparedness – both physical and financial – to help reduce the burden on government, businesses and households.

Under this program, we will also help the Government to mainstream disaster risk management in relevant development projects; this basically means designing projects so that they are more “disaster risk sensitive”. For example, World Bank-supported roads improvement and local economy and infrastructure projects already incorporate landslide risks for road design. All World Bank infrastructure projects now include a mechanism to quickly reallocate money within the project to respond rapidly in case of emergencies.

Armenia is not alone in confronting the risk of natural disasters; disasters worldwide are increasing in frequency and intensity, significantly degrading progress in sustainable development. In the last decade, over 700, 000 people lost their lives, and the global economic loss was more than US$1.3 trillion.

Global experience demonstrates that for disaster-prone countries like Armenia, a shift from responding to emergences to proactive risk reduction is key to reducing loss of lives, property and other assets. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 (Sendai Framework), a voluntary agreement adopted in March 2015 by United Nation member states including Armenia, testifies to this global commitment.

The challenge now is to translate that commitment into action.


Laura Bailey

Former Global Lead for Stability, Peace and Security, Lead Social Development Specialist

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