By Denis McClean
AQABA, 21 March 2013 - Representatives from across the Arab world today called for continuity and further strengthening of the existing global framework for disaster risk reduction, the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) as they concluded the First Arab Regional Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.
The closing statement said the Arab Region believes that the current HFA offers a comprehensive platform for action. However, the Arab region recommends that a strong HFA2 be agreed in 2015 with an emphasis on improved governance and accountability, resources and capacities, knowledge and awareness.
The gathering included mayors and local government representatives from some 40 cities and towns across the region including Aqaba, Gaza, Mogadishu and Tunis. They issued the draft Aqaba Declaration on Disaster Risk Reduction in Cities to be shared with cities and towns across the region before final agreement next month.
The Cities declaration seeks to set specific targets for achievement over the next five years including allocation of at least 2% of a city's annual budget for disaster risk reduction; commitments to legislation, risk assessments, public awareness campaigns, safe schools and hospitals and other infrastructure improvements.
The Arab region also agreed to come together on a regular basis to assess progress and continue the momentum gained over the last three days.
The Conference singled out the following issues for particular attention in the HFA2: climate resilience with a focus on drought and water challenges; strengthening infrastructure to mitigate flash floods and seismic risk; urban risk management; legislation and regulatory mechanisms, e.g. building codes, land-use planning.
Speaking at the conclusion of the Conference, Ambassador Shahira Wahbi, Chief of Sustainable Development, League of Arab States, said: "This conference has brought new importance to disaster risk reduction and it is clear that Arab States are united by a common desire to share best practice across the region where millions of people are affected each year by droughts, floods and earthquakes.
"We have agreed here in Aqaba that we would like to see the HFA2 in 2015 include performance indicators and stronger monitoring systems to ensure that governments across the region can quickly identify gaps and emerging new threats from climate change and other sources. I would like to see a particular emphasis on drought resilience in the HFA2 as it threatens the very existence of some of our people."
Amjad Abbashar, UNISDR Head of Office for the Arab States, said: "The outcome of this meeting, the Aqaba Declaration for Disaster Risk Reduction provides major input into the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction which takes place in Geneva in May."
The May Global Platform will be the last such event before the HFA2 at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015.
There was animated discussion on the future shape of an international framework agreement here over the last three days. Some voices have been raised in support of an international treaty, others have called for a convention but in the end there is consensus that the most important thing is to maintain the core of the HFA and build on it.
Prof. Jalal Al Dabbeck, Director of Urban Planning and the Disaster Risk Reduction Centre at Anajah University, Nablus, Palestine, observed that many Arab countries came late to the HFA "so the framework remains very relevant. The important thing is to continue the work."
He said that many Arab States need a mechanism to apply the HFA, a better understanding of disaster risk reduction among key decision makers and stronger institutions. One sign of Palestine's commitment is the new Seismic Building Code which comes into force this year.
Nathalie Zaarour who heads the Disaster Risk Management Unit in the Lebanese Prime Minister's office believes that the HFA should not be optional any more or at the very least should have performance indicators.
"The HFA was very good for us. It makes you question your capacities and encourages you to start working and planning," she said.
Lebanon currently has 270 municipalities signed up to UNISDR's Making Cities Resilient Campaign. It has completed its second report on HFA implementation and established a national disaster loss data base. It also has legislation pending on a national strategy for disaster risk reduction with cross-party support.
In Egypt, General Osama Mohamed Singer, is the director of the Crisis and Disaster Management Sector and one thing he would like to see addressed in the HFA2 process is an emphasis on more political commitment to disaster risk reduction and more support to capacity building.
"I hope that the HFA2 will help with knowledge transfer from other countries," he said. Egypt is currently completing its third report on HFA implementation and is also planning a risk assessment of transport safety along the river Nile from Cairo to Luxor, 1,000 kms. It was one of the first countries in the region to develop a national disaster loss data base.
Ahmed Hussain Abdulla who heads the executive office of the National Committee for Disaster Management in the Kingdom of Bahrain, said: "The HFA is a tool which helped us to improve our capacity for disaster risk management. UNISDR has helped us a lot.
"The key principle of the HFA is that disaster risk management is not just the responsibility of the government, it is the responsibility of all the people of Bahrain. It's about working together. In the revised HFA I would like to see performance indicators to encourage improvement."
Dr. Abdulmalek H. Al-Jolahy, First Deputy Minister, Ministry of Public Works and Highways, Yemen, has ambitious plans to see disaster risk reduction included in the new constitution which is expected to emerge from the country's national dialogue, now underway.
However, he frankly admits that the challenges are huge. "We have no national plan. We don't have institutions or a legal framework for implementing the HFA. With the help of GFDRR we have been able to complete a risk assessment but we need to take further action. We need more international support for our efforts."