Over the last 25 years, the world has seen a rise in the frequency of natural disasters in rich and poor countries alike. Today, there are more people at risk from natural hazards than ever before, with those in developing countries particularly at risk. This essay series is intended to explore measures that have been taken, and could be taken, in order to improve responses to the threat or occurrence of natural disasters in the MENA and Indo-Pacific regions. Read more ...
In recent years, displacement from conflict has reached a level unseen since the Second World War while natural disasters have been occurring with greater force and frequency. These developments have made the tasks of preventing and reducing human suffering more urgent yet more difficult, and have placed the humanitarian machinery under severe strain. Over the past decade, all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Asia—the regions which the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) encompasses—have experienced one or more man-made disasters, natural disasters, or both.
The MAP essay series Refugees Adrift? explores the human costs and policy responses to conflict-driven mass displacement. This essay frames the subject of a related series, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief: Rising to the Challenge?, which aims to help inform the discussion about how best to prepare for and mitigate the immediate and long-term effects of a natural disaster. Accordingly, this essay provides a brief overview of the increasing frequency and growing risk of natural disasters, surveys the natural disaster landscape in the MENA region, and briefly discusses efforts to develop strategies for reducing losses by emphasizing prevention and preparedness.
Worldwide Natural Disasters: Increasing Frequency and Growing Risk
The term “natural disaster” refers to a major adverse event resulting from one or more “natural hazards,” i.e. naturally occurring physical phenomena caused either by rapid or slow onset events. These hazards can be geophysical (earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis and volcanic activity), hydrological (avalanches and floods), climatological (extreme temperatures, drought and wildfires), meteorological (cyclones and storms/wave surges) or biological (disease epidemics and insect/animal plagues).
Natural disasters are events that seriously disrupt the functioning of a community or a society, causing widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses which exceed the ability of the affected community or society to cope with using its own resources. Yet, it is important to note that natural disasters are not entirely “natural.” Human activities—ranging from change in land use patterns and migration to unplanned or poorly governed urbanization—have driven disaster risk to new heights in many parts of the world. Conversely, well-conceived policies and practices can, and have reduced disaster risk, thereby sparing lives and reducing economic losses.
A 20-year review of disaster impacts worldwide conducted by the Brussels-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) found that whereas the frequency of geophysical disasters remained broadly constant throughout the period 1994-2013, there was a sustained rise in climate-related events (mainly floods and storms). According to a 2014 report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), natural disasters are occurring nearly five times as often as they were in the 1970s, due to the increasing risks produced by climate change.
The human cost of natural disasters has been steep. According to the Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes, hazards such as droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, tropical cyclones and related health epidemics were responsible for 1.94 million deaths and US$ 2.4 trillion of economic loss from 1970-2012. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 14 estimated the expected annual average losses (AAL) from earthquakes, tsunamis, tropical cyclones and river flooding at US$ 314 billion in the built environment alone.
The CRED disaster impacts review reported that although the average number of people affected by natural disasters declined from 1994 to 2013, death rates increased over the same period, highlighting the continued vulnerability of communities to natural hazards. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimated that between 2008 and 2014 an annual average of 26.4 million people were displaced by the direct threat or impacts of natural hazards. The report projects that climate change, in conjunction with people’s increasing exposure and vulnerability, will magnify this trend, as extreme weather events become more frequent and intense in the years ahead.
The CRED, IDMC, and UNISDR all emphasize that in instances where urban growth has been rapid, unplanned and poorly governed, exposure and vulnerability to natural hazards is especially acute. They also emphasize that the burden of natural disasters tends to fall disproportionately on poorer countries and poorer communities.
Natural Disasters and the MENA Region
Impacts of natural disasters vary within and across regions, depending on the geographic exposure to risk as well as the level of socio-economic development. Fatalities tend to be higher in developing countries while economic losses are generally higher in developed economies. But all countries are vulnerable to disasters.
In recent years, Asian countries have been the worst affected by natural disasters. They have accounted for the largest events and suffered the highest death tolls and displacement levels. However, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is not immune from natural hazards. Nor have natural disasters been uncommon. On the contrary, since the 1980s, the average number of disasters in the Middle East and North Africa has nearly tripled. According to Franck Bousquet, World Bank Sector Manager of Urban, Social and Disaster Risk Management,
The MENA region has been hit by at least 370 natural disasters over the past 25 years with 40 million people affected at a cost of US$ 19 billion. Read moreover, the people who suffer the most are usually those who are poor.
Floods are the most prevalent disaster in the Middle East and North Africa, notwithstanding the alarming levels of water scarcity in much of the region. In fact, flash floods in many MENA countries have caused loss of life and disrupted business activity. In recent years, torrential downpours have triggered flash flooding all across North Africa. Since 2013, flash flooding has repeatedly struck Algeria, including in the normally arid Tindouf region. In a single instance of flooding in southern Morocco in November 2014, 36 people lost their lives.
Flash flooding has also become a more common occurrence throughout the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula. Heavy flooding after Cyclone Ashobaa in June 2015 closed schools and shuttered hotels in the eastern parts of Oman. This past April, heavy rainfall triggered widespread flooding in Yemen, killing at least 20 people and affecting more than 4,000 families in seven governorates. The floods reportedly caused severe damage to vital infrastructure (including the collapse of two small dams in Hajjah and Amran), property, livestock and crops. The same week, flash foods—a frequent occurrence in Iran—caused serious damage across 12 provinces.
In addition, many parts of the MENA region are highly vulnerable to the potential impacts of sea level rise, saltwater intrusion and increased frequency and severity of storm surges. A study on climate change vulnerability rankings from the Center for Global Development ranked five MENA countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates—in the top 20 at risk from sea level rise by 2050. Similarly, the potential impacts of climate change on Egypt's low coastal lands and the fertile Nile delta are considered very serious.
Earthquakes are the second most recurring disaster in the region. Turkey, much of whose territory sits atop the Anatolian Plate and is bounded by two fault zones, is a seismically active area and thus is vulnerable to earthquakes. Turkey suffered two massive earthquakes within a three-month period in 1999 (i.e., in Izmit-Golcuk in August and Duzce in October). Turkey also experienced large earthquakes in May 2003 in the city of Bingol in the eastern part of the country, and in Van and the surrounding district of Ercis in eastern Anatolia in October 2011. Istanbul remains highly susceptible to quakes, and even more so the coastal city of Izmit. According to the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, nearly 70 percent of buildings in Istanbul are still at risk while 27 percent are at “high risk” and should be demolished.
Iran, which lies along several major fault lines that cover most of the country, experienced a number of major quakes in recent years, including the devastating Bam earthquake in 2003, in which approximately 27,000 people were killed, 270,000 were affected, and more than US$ 500 million in damage and losses were sustained. Read more recently, a quake struck Khash near the Pakistan border, another hit the greater Kerman area of central Iran in 2015, and a series of medium-strength tremors shook Tehran that same year.
Algeria, too, lies within an earthquake zone. In recent decades Algeria has experienced several moderate to strong earthquakes that have caused considerable loss of life and damage in urban areas. The quake which struck the Algiers-Boumerdes-Dellys-Thenia area on May 21, 2003 resulted in 2,266 deaths, 10,261 injured, and 180,000 rendered homeless; and it damaged or destroyed more than 43,500 buildings.
The MENA region is also susceptible to drought. The Middle East and North Africa is the most water scarce region in the world. Fourteen of 20 MENA countries are classified as being in water deficit. Aridity, low and variable rainfall, and high rates of evaporation have accentuated the region’s vulnerability.
Benjamin I. Cook et al. determined the recent 15-year drought in the Levant (1998–2012) to have been the driest on record. World Resources Institute (WSI) rankings of future water stress placed 14 of the 33 likely most water stressed countries in 2040 in the Middle East and North Africa, including nine considered extremely highly stressed (i.e., Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon). According to another study, the Arabian Aquifer (Saudi Arabia) and Murzuk-Djado Basin (North Africa) are extremely stressed, with little to no hope of recharging.
Sandstorms in the MENA region have become more frequent and more destructive. Although dusty winds blowing across the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa in the springtime months are annual weather events, they have become more severe and unseasonable.
In February 2015, powerful winds reaching 100 km per hour swept across North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, first hitting Egypt, where a cloud of dust shrouded Cairo and winds were so fierce that they forced the temporary closure of the Suez Canal. Seven months later, another massive, unseasonable storm of this kind enveloped all of Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, and the Palestinian Territories in a thick layer of dust; and, moving southwest, it spread over northeastern Egypt and the Gulf of Suez. The sandstorm resulted in flight cancellations and diversions; disrupted ground transport, internet and electricity services in some municipalities; and sent hundreds to hospital with respiratory problems.
Prolonged heat waves are yet another threat to local populations in the MENA region. A “heat dome” that settled over the Middle East in July 2015 sent temperatures soaring to just a few degrees below the highest recorded heat index; among other things, the heat wave strained the capacities of municipalities to provide electricity and water.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia have been studying the effects of climate change on the MENA region. According to their findings, published in April 2016 in the journal Climatic Change, peak summer temperatures in the region will rise almost twice as fast as the global average; and heat waves could occur ten times more often and last much longer than they do now. Lead author of the article and Director of Chemistry Jos Lelieveld of the Max Planck Institute offered this stark warning:
In future, the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa could change in such a manner that the very existence of its inhabitants is in jeopardy … Climate change will significantly worsen the living conditions in the [region]. Prolonged heat waves and desert dust storms can render some regions uninhabitable, which will surely contribute to the pressure to migrate.
The region’s population and economic assets are highly concentrated in urban areas situated in coastal strips, mountain valleys and along rivers. In fact, disasters have struck urban areas in the MENA region particularly hard. In the MENA, as elsewhere, informal communities are especially vulnerable. And as informal settlements continue to grow, along with cities, they will leave more and more people exposed to the full impact of natural disasters.
Rising to the Challenge
Nevertheless, there is some encouraging news: In recent decades, there has been a gradual conceptual shift away from the traditional—and fatalistic—understanding of natural disasters that they are events to be waited for, which required remedial action when they occur. The architecture and dominant approach of the international relief system that developed since the 1970s reflected this thinking. Over the years, the idea that development and vulnerability play important roles in creating or exacerbating disasters gained currency. Disaster events of the 1970s and late 1980s intensified the search to develop a more effective global system of disaster preparedness and management. Van Niekerk describes this evolution in thinking:
A more comprehensive sense of disaster preparedness and management that encompassed functions of preparedness, prevention, mitigation, reconstruction and rehabilitation began to be more widely recognised as a much needed alternative to disaster relief.
Particularly over the past decade, momentum has been building in efforts to tackle the worrisome disaster risk trend through individual and collective actions aimed at better understanding of risk, stronger risk-management governance, investment in resilience and post-disaster recovery planning. An important milestone was reached in 2005, at the World Conference for Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan. There, 168 U.N. Member States drafted and endorsed the (HFA), which called for a shift from emergency response to a more proactive, holistic and systematic approach with strong focus on risk reduction.
The HFA—the first plan to explain, describe and detail the work required from various sectors and actors to reduce disaster losses—identified five priority areas for action:
1. Ensure that disaster risk reduction is a national and a local priority with a strong institutional basis for implementation.
2. Identify, assess and monitor disaster risks and enhance early warning.
3. Use knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels.
4. Reduce the underlying risk factors.
5. Strengthen disaster preparedness for effective response at all levels.
The successor to the HFA, the —a non-binding agreement that emerged from three years of discussions—set four priorities for action:
1. Understanding disaster risk.
2. Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk.
3. Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience.
4. Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response, and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.
The Sendai document also set seven global targets to substantially reduce deaths and economic losses. Woven into the document are the notions that inclusion builds resilience, and that dedicated action focused on tackling underlying risk drivers (e.g., the consequences of poverty, climate change and variability, poor land management and unplanned and rapid urbanization, etc.) is critically important.
At the regional and country levels, there are clear signs that a paradigm shift from reactive to proactive approaches to natural disaster is underway. Most countries have outlined legal frameworks and institutional arrangements for disaster reduction management (DRM). In countries such as Bangladesh, which has experienced many devastating floods, thousands of lives have been saved in recent years because disaster risk reduction (DRR) has been factored into core economic planning and money invested in infrastructure, storm shelters and early warning systems.
MENA countries, too, have made some progress in responding to the growing risk of natural disasters. Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Yemen have designed policies and established DRM government units to strengthen coordination. Disaster risk assessments, early warning systems, risk management laboratories, and knowledge centers have been established. Yet, despite this encouraging progress, much more needs to be done.
In order to cope with the increasing frequency and growing risk of natural disasters worldwide, humanitarian funding must be put on a more sustainable trajectory. But narrowing the humanitarian financing “gap” will not be easy. Nor will it be sufficient. As the report of the High-leaders’ Roundtable for the World Humanitarian Summit stated,
A change in approach is urgently needed. There is a need to anticipate and act early on identified risks, making use of advances in risk analysis and early warning. There is a need to reinforce, rather than replace national and local systems. Preparedness and response should be ‘as local as possible, as international as necessary.’
Rising to the challenge posed by the increasing frequency and growing risk of natural disasters, in the MENA region as elsewhere, will require country-level investment in managing disaster risk, including through the improvement and implementation of legal frameworks, as well as civil society and community resilience engagement. It will also require the establishment and strengthening of transnational “knowledge networks” that conduct collaborative research, help transfer skills, and share lessons learned and best practices. Through the series that flows from this essay, the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) joins the conversation regarding how to meet the challenge of a fast-rising tide of natural disaster risk.
 International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “Types of Disasters: Natural Hazards,” accessed May 20, 2016, .
 This definition adopts the terminology used by UNIDSR to promote a common understanding of the subject. See .
 Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), “The Human Cost of Natural Disasters: A Global Perspective” (2015), accessed May 22, 2016, file:///C:/Users/cal/Downloads/The_Human_Cost_of_Natural_Disasters_CRED%20(2).
 World Meteorological Organization (WMO), “Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate, and Water Extremes, 1970-2012.” WMO-No. 1123. 2014. Accessed May 23, 2016,.
 United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), “Making Development Sustainable: The Future of Disaster Risk Management,” Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction,” accessed May 12, 2016, .
 Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), “IDMC Global Estimates 2015: People Displaced by Disaster” (2015), 11, accessed May 23, 2016, .
 Ibid, 19.
 This essay, following The World Bank Group, defines the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, West Bank and Gaza, and the Republic of Yemen.
 EM-DAT, OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database, Université Catholique de Louvain, Brussels, .
 Quoted in The World Bank, “Disaster Risk Management in the Arab World is Critical and Cost Effective,” November 17, 2013, accessed May 23, 2016, .
 The World Bank, “Water in the Arab World: From Droughts to Flood, Building Resilience against Extremes,” March 21, 2014, accessed May 20, 2016, .
 See Floodlist, .
 Richard Davies, “Read more Heavy Rain in Morocco Prompts High Level Flood Warnings,” Floodlist, November 29, 2014, accessed May 23, 2016, ; and IFRC, “Read more Than 600 Volunteers Mas Heavy Floods Hit Moroccan Cities, Kill Dozens,” December 2, 2014, accessed May 20, 2016, .
 Everton Fox, “Heavy Flooding after Cyclone Ashobaa Hits Oman,” Aljazeera English, June 13, 2015, accessed May 23, 2016, .
 International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), “Flash Floods,” Information Bulletin Yemen/MENA, April 17, 2016, accessed May 20, 2016, .
 Stephen Ryan and Hassan Esfandiar, “Iranian Red Crescent Teams Responding to Heavy Flooding in Iran,” International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), April 17, 2016, accessed May 23, 2016, .
 David Wheeler, “Quantifying Vulnerability to Climate Change: Implications for Adaptation Assistance,” Center for Global Development (January 24, 2011) 21, accessed May 21, 2016, . regarding Egypt's vulnerability to sea level rise and other climate-related factors, see Shardul Agrawala et al., “Development and Climate Change in Egypt: Focus on Coastal Resources and the Nile," Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2004) 15-16, accessed May 22, 2016, ; H. Sharkawy et al., “The Impacts of SLR on Egypt,”45th ISOCARP Congress 2009, accessed May 22, 2016, ; and P. Michael Link et al., “Impacts of Sea Level Rise on the Coastal Zones of Egypt,” University of Hamburg Research Group Climate Change and Security Working Paper CLISEC-25 (January 2013), accessed May 22, 2016, .
 See “Timeline: Major Earthquakes in Turkey,” Reuters, October 27, 2011, accessed May 21, 2016, .
 Jillian Kestler-D’Amours, “Turkey Braces for Next Major Earthquake,” Aljazeera English, April 19, 2014, accessed May 21, 2016, .
 “Istanbul ‘No Read more Prepared’ for Earthquakes Than in ‘99,” , November 5, 2015, accessed May 21, 2016, .
 “Timeline: major earthquakes in Iran,” Reuters, August 12, 2012, accessed May 21, 2016, . See also Iran Seismological Association, “Latest Earthquakes in Iran and Adjacent Areas,” accessed May 21, 2016, .
 The World Bank, “Natural Disasters in the Middle East and North Africa: A Regional Overview” (January 2014) 63, accessed May 22, 2016, .
 “Major earthquake strikes southeast Iran,” BBC News, April 17, 2013, accessed May 21, 2016, .
 “Small Quakes Shake Loose Big Fears,” Al Monitor Iran Pulse, August 25, 2015, accessed May 21, 2016, .
 U.S. Geological Survey, “Earthquake Information for 2003,” accessed May 23, 2016, .
 U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), “NASA Water Information System Platform (WISP) for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region,” accessed May 24, 2016, .
 Benjamin I. Cook et al., “Spatiotemporal Drought Variability in the Mediterranean Over the Last 900 Years,” Journal of Geophysical Research 121:5 (2016): 2060-2074. DOI: 10.1002/2015JD023929.
 Andrew Maddocks, Robert Samuel Young, and Paul Reig, “Ranking the World’s Most Water-stressed Countries, World Resources Institute, August 26, 2015, accessed May 24, 2016, .
 Alexandra Richey et al., “Quantifying Renewable Groundwater Stress with GRACE,” Water Resources Research 51:7 (2015). DOI: 10.1002/2015WR017349.
 “‘Unprecedented’ Sandstorm Blasts Across Middle East,” The Independent, September 9, 2016, accessed May 21, 2016, . “Middle East Dust Storm Puts Dozens in Hospital,” BBC News, September 8, 2016, accessed May 21, 2016, .
 Brooks Hays, “Heat Index Soars in Iran as ‘Heat Dome' Settles Over Middle East,” UPI, August 1, 2015, accessed May 21, 2016, ; James Rothwell, “Scorching 'Heat Dome' Over Middle East Makes It Feel like 162F in Iran,” The Telegraph, August 1, 2015, accessed May 21, 2016, .
 Jos Lelieveld et al., “Strongly Increasing Heat Extremes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the 21st Century,” Climate Change, first online April 23, 2016, 1-16, accessed May 21, 2016, . See also Jeremy S. Pal and Elfatih A.B. Eltahir, “Future Temperature in Southwest Asia Projected to Exceed a Threshold for Human Adaptability,” Nature Climate Change 6 (2016): 197-200.
 Quoted in Loulla-May Eleftheriou-Smith, “Climate Change Could Make Parts of the Middle East and North Africa ‘Uninhabitable,’” The Independent, May 2, 2016, accessed May 21, 2016,
 Dewald Van Niekerk, “From Disaster Relief to Disaster Risk Reduction: A Consideration of the Evolving International Relief Mechanism,” Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa 4:2 (2008): 355-375.
 See, for example, Fred C. Cuny, Disasters and Development (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); and Allan Lavell, “The Impact of Disasters on Development Gains: Clarity or Controversy.” Paper presented at the IDNDR Programme Forum, Geneva, July 5-9, 1999, accessed May 24, 2016, .
 Van Niekerk, “From Disaster Relief to Disaster Risk Reduction,” 366.
 Ibid, 366-367.
 United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), “Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters.” Extract from the final report of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (A/CONF.206/6), accessed May 20, 2016,
 For a brief discussion of the targets and of some of the complaints by critics that they did not go far enough, see, for example, Megan Rowley, “New Global Disaster Plan Sets Targets to Curb Risk, Losses,” Reuters, March 18, 2015, accessed May 22, 2016, .
 See, for example, Randeep Ramesh, Owen Bowcott, and Haroon Siddique, “Bangladesh Cyclone Death toll passes 3,000,” The Guardian, November 19, 2007, accessed May 20, 2016, .
 “Cyclone Roanu: Bangladesh Moves 2 Million People from Coast,” The Guardian (from Reuters), April 26, 2016, accessed May 20, 2016, .
 High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing Report to the U.N. Secretary-General, “Too Important to Fail—Addressing the Humanitarian Financing Gap,” December 2015, accessed May 20, 2016, .
 See Kristalina Georgieva, Vice President of the European Commission, “Why Read more Money Alone won’t Improve Crisis Response: On Priority Reforms at the World Humanitarian Summit,” April 16, 2016, accessed May 20, 2016, .
 Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit, “Natural Disasters and Climate Change: Managing Risks and Crises Differently,” High-Level Leaders’ Roundtable on Core Responsibility Four of the Agenda for Humanity (2016), accessed May 22, 2016, .