Historic snow storm challenges Middle East preparedness

Inundated: Heavy flooding across the Gaza Strip displaced 10,000 people. Photo credit: Palestinian Information Center
 
By Berta Acero

CAIRO, 18 December 2013 – The worst snow storm in decades affected large parts of the Middle East and tested disaster preparedness and management in the region.

‘Alexa’ affected several states, including Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria, causing evacuations, blackouts, damage to thousands of homes, road closures, and livestock losses.

Snow fell in the Egyptian capital Cairo for the first time in more than 100 years ago, according to local news reports. In Palestine, heavy flooding across the Gaza Strip displaced approximately 10,000 people to temporary shelters.

Heavy snow cut off dozens of communities across the West Bank and tens of thousands of homes were left without electricity. Significant loss of livestock occurred.

Almost half a metre of snow fell in parts of Jordan with the authorities urging people to stay indoors. The Jordan Times reported that the Cabinet decided to file a lawsuit against two private electricity distribution companies for failure to “perform their duties during the snowstorm”. Large areas in Amman and various governorates experienced frequent blackouts during the three-day blizzard.

In Lebanon, the Minister of Education, Mr. Hassan Diab, closed all nurseries and schools the day before the storm. The authorities urged people to take necessary precautions and police remained on high alert. The coastal city of Sidon cleaned the city canal so that it could absorb extra runoff from the snowmelt.

The bad weather worsened the situation for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, stepped up measures including the distribution of additional emergency shelter kits, including in the Bekaa Valley.

“Dry lands, such as these Arab states, being shocked with an extreme icy cold wave not seen in a century is one example of how climate risk is increasing,” said the Climate Change Coordinator of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), Ms. Luna Abu-Swaireh.

“These extreme events that cause havoc, damage and major losses in lives and livelihoods, require resources and capacities dedicated to disaster risk reduction including for preparedness and disaster management,” she added.

Different parts of the Arab region are regularly exposed to geological hazards such as earthquakes and landslides, as well as to weather related hazards such as floods, extreme temperatures, drought, sand storms, wildfires and cyclones.

During the past 30 years, the Arab region has been affected by more than 330 disasters that killed more than 160,000 people and affected approximately 60 million people. Urban risk is a major problem in the region, with more than 55 percent of its population living in cities and towns.

In August this year, Sudan suffered the worst floods for 25 years causing 48 deaths and affecting more than 500,000 people. In mid-November, a tropical storm in Somalia killed more than 100 people. A few days later, heavy rains disrupted Saudi Arabia, a country dominated by desert, causing floods, traffic jams and leaving some casualties.

“A number of factors have enhanced the exposure and vulnerability of cities in the Arab region,” explained the Head of UNISDR’s Regional Office for Arab States, Mr. Amjad Abbashar. “The explosive increase in the urban population over the past decades, poor urban planning, inappropriate construction quality and the impact of climate change are amongst them.

“However, there is an increasing recognition in the region that disaster risk reduction is a foundation for successful sustainable development.”

An important instance of this commitment to reduce disaster impacts was the Arab League’s adoption in 2012 of the Arab Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction 2020.

A multi-stakeholder Platform for Arab governments, policy makers, planners, academia, civil society and development experts will take place in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in June 2014 to review progress and challenges in terms of disaster risk reduction.
The United Nations General Assembly requested UNISDR to facilitate the development of a post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction The United Nations General Assembly requested UNISDR to facilitate the development of a post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction.
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