One Year After Sendai – What The World Can Learn from Armenia

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Devastation from the Mar. 1, 2011 tsunami that swept through Yotukura fishing village. © Suvendrini Kakuchi/IPS

By Armen Chilingaryan

Armen Chilingaryan is Disaster Risk Reduction Programme Coordinator at UNDP Armenia

YEREVAN, ARMENIA, Mar 18 2016 (IPS) - Armenia is prone to natural disasters. Eight out of every 10 citizens are likely to experience a natural disaster at some point during their lifetimes – an earthquake, landslide, hailstorm or flooding. Each year, the country incurs $33 million in damage from such disasters.

As a Member State of the United Nations, Armenia joined the Hyogo Framework for Action in 2005, which brought a common understanding, at the global level, of what is needed to minimize the destruction caused by natural disasters.

Immediately after joining this global call, Armenia began to shift its approach from providing humanitarian relief to reducing risk. More than ten years down the line, the country has made every effort to become a safer place to live.

Here’s how. After independence in the early 1990s, many communities in Armenia didn’t have working drainage systems, mudflow channels and soil dams. They now do, thanks to the leadership of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, which pushed for stronger and more conscious urban planning.

In addition, unlike many countries at the time, there was no system in place – neither at national nor at community level – to monitor incoming disasters or coordinate the response once they occurred.

This changed when, in 2010, Armenia set up a national platform and in 2012 a strategy for disaster risk reduction. The region’s first, it extended the responsibility for mitigating risk to many institutions and people concerned, not just the Ministry of Emergency Situations.

Next, disaster risk management has been mainstreamed into the Government’s development plans and is much more proactive, relying on data, research studies, satellite pictures, meteorological sensors and other sources.

These measures would not be effective without proper decentralisation of decision-making. In a country where over 30 percent of the population works in rural agriculture, even one severe hailstorm can have devastating consequences on crop production and national poverty rates.

By decentralising the management of disaster risk to nine regional crisis management centers, preventative actions were vastly augmented, targeting those most at risk.

As a result, hundreds of hectares of land and households have been protected thanks to mudflow channels, dams and cleaning drainage systems. When UNDP installed hail nets in three communities, 95 percent of the yield survived after a subsequent wave of hail storms.

The demand for the nets increased sharply in other areas of Armenia, and a range of NGOs, including CARD, World Vision Armenia and Oxfam started replicating that practice across the country.

One of the big takeaways from the Summit in Sendai, Japan was that reducing the risk of disaster must be a collaborative effort. While governments will lead the fight, a range of other stakeholders must be involved.

Armenia’s policy of decentralisation has also seen the active participation of an uncharacteristically large array of stakeholders including local actors, research centers, NGOs, educational institutions, persons with disabilities, women’s networks and organizations, and vulnerable groups.

Finally, the country has taken advantage of overlapping global initiatives. In 2010, 21 cities in Armenia officially joined the “Making Cities Resilient: My City is Getting Ready” campaign under which cities make a commitment to undertake 10 steps to become safer.

One of them, Stepanavan, situated in the north of the country, was selected as a role model during the Sendai conference. The city administration was the first to place resilience at the core of its urban planning and land-use management efforts.

A year ago today, the Armenian delegation, led by the Ministry of Emergency Situations, showcased these successes to the world. Other countries are beginning to take note; providing all levels of society with the means to identify potential disasters, reduce their risk, and coordinate responses.

Guaranteeing people’s safety at a time of grave environmental risk depends on making that change.