Disaster reduction in Algeria - learning the hard way

Algeria knows only too well the importance of disaster reduction, and it has learned the lesson the hard way. Thousands have died as a result of devastating earthquakes, floods, mudslides and other disasters.
"Algeria is exposed to many kinds of disaster", says Fachouch Baroudi, head of the disaster preparedness and rescue division of the Algerian Red Crescent Society (ARCS).

"The country is vulnerable to natural phenomena, such as earthquakes and floods, and to man-made vulnerabilities like road accidents. But also we suffer from economic and social disasters such as poverty and a lack of family assistance, especially for the elderly, women and children", he explained.

In May 2003, an earthquake measuring 6.8 on Richter scale killed 3,000 people. Around 10,000 were injured and 19,000 made homeless. In 2002, dozens of people died as heavy rain swept through 18 provinces. The previous year, 300 people were killed and 1,000 injured in Algiers and Bab el-Oeud when a deluge of mud and debris, dislodged by violent storms, buried homes and communities. In 1980, a major earthquake killed 5,000 people.

"Prevention is more important than response", notes Dr. Baroudi. "If the massive earthquake which recently hit Japan, in which no-one died, had taken place in Algeria, the entire affected area would have been wiped out".

To respond to the constant threat of disaster hanging over the country, the ARCS is implementing a new project to train disaster response teams able to intervene in the event of any emergency. The aim of the programme is to have a trained logistic teams in all 48 Algerian governorates within three years.

"All our logistic team, will be trained in how to manage a disaster warehouse and donations", explains Baroudi. The International Federation will provide the equipment and the French Red Cross will provide the training for the Algerian staff and volunteers.

As part of this more coordinated disaster reduction approach, ARCS staff are being trained in how to assess vulnerability and local capacities in five of the regions most exposed to disasters: Annaba, Skikda, Oran, Boumerdes and Ouargla. In parallel, a plan is being implemented to install a first aid centre in each of the 48 Algerian governorates.

Another crucial element in disaster reduction is raising public awareness because vulnerability often arises simply because people do not know how to get out of harm's way or what measures they should take to protect themselves. As first step, the ARCS has prepared leaflets to inform the population what to do in case of an earthquake.

"The population is still traumatised by the past earthquake. We have produced a leaflet to inform them how they can be prepared in case it happens again", says Hind Boukhroufa, information officer for the ARCS. "We are targeting children aged between six and 16 years old, and through them we will reach families too".

In the first phase, 50 children will receive the leaflet which is made of cartoon images. Psychologists will analyse if it helps them to be less traumatised by knowing what to do in case of a new earthquake. If it works, the leaflets will be distributed in schools, especially in Reghaya, the town that was hardest hit by May's earthquake. It is hoped the campaign will ultimately target some 6 million children nationwide.

Ensuring supplies of safe water is also a prime concern during disasters. During the earthquake, national water pipelines were ruptured. In order to secure the water delivered to hospitals, the ARCS, with the Swiss and German Red Cross, is preparing to build a special water supplies system to hospitals, to avoid the spread of water-borne diseases.

Although much cheaper in the long-term than responding to disasters, disaster reduction still costs a great deal of money, and the ARCS has managed to secure the backing of several donors.

"We have many donors who recognise the importance of disaster reduction programmes in Algeria and they are ready to support our programmes in this regards", explains Dr. Baroudi. "Coordination is the key element for the success of such programmes because many parties are engaged in it".