Can Central Asia protect itself from disasters?

April 26, 2018

A landslide affects a small village in Kyrgyzstan. Photo: UNDP Kyrgyzstan

Most people who live in Central Asia are too young to remember the devastating earthquakes from the past.

Although all Central Asian countries are characterized by high seismic risk, the region has seen few destructive earthquakes in recent decades.

But in 1966, Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, was leveled by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake. Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, was partially destroyed in 1948 with up to 176,000 deaths reported.

While the prospect of a powerful earthquake remains highly likely, the region is also victim to a flurry of smaller tragedies that don’t typically make international headlines. Last year, Tajikistan suffered over 1,000 mudslides, floods, avalanches and small earthquakes. These cost the country dozens of millions of dollars worth of damage.

The bad news is things are likely to get worse. With climate change, demographic growth, urbanization, and accelerating industrial and agricultural development, most experts agree that these events are set to become more frequent and intense.

According to the World Bank, for instance, temperatures in the Central Asia region could rise by up to 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That could cause more than a third of Central Asian glaciers to melt by 2050, exposing nearby villages to glacial floods.

In spite of these alarming prospects, most experts warn that people, buildings and governments are insufficiently prepared. I have been to so many missions and events where that observation was made.

From Turkmenistan to Tajikistan, risk assessments often underestimate the probability and cost of impacts such as utility outages, displaced households and accumulation of debris.

Uncoordinated data makes it difficult to understand which areas are critically exposed. And emergency units within governments are often limited by narrow mandates and capabilities.

The public gets involved in the reinforcement of the riverbank in Arbyn village, Kyrgyzstan. Photo: UNDP Kyrgyzstan

Today, I’m excited to attend a large ministerial conference in Almaty which will look at all these issues. And my sense is that ministers will address all or most of the following five priorities:

1.     Building a culture of safety and resilience at all levels.
This means conducting drills and making sure everyone is aware of their surroundings;

2.     Making comprehensive risk assessments standard practice.
Risk modelling is costly but the long-term benefits significantly outweigh the initial costs. Many initiatives are underway to predict exactly what would happen and how to respond if a 7.5 or 9 magnitude quake strikes one of the five countries;

3.     Integrating risk into all development efforts, and across sectors.
Ministries in charge of handling emergencies require the collaboration of all other parts of government;

4.     Involving businesses to protect investments.
Small businesses should have recovery plans. Big corporations can help deliver assistance when lives are affected;

5.     Expanding the range of financial mechanisms available, transferring some risk to the private sector.

But one aspect that will clearly stand out is regional cooperation. It’s a vital necessity in a region where international borders straddle communities. This is the case of the Fergana Valley, where large cities are close to borders, and earthquakes and other disasters can impact more than one country at a time. A search and rescue team dealing with a remote border area will inevitably have to assist both sides of it. How do we get every country to coordinate with its neighbor?

Thankfully, the five Central Asian countries are starting to work more closely with each other. And the recently inaugurated Center for Emergency Situations and Disaster Risk Reduction in Almaty is creating stronger bonds between governments, technical agencies and the most exposed and vulnerable communities.

If the countries of Central Asia, supported by the international community, double their efforts to prevent risk rather than recover from disasters, they will be in a unique position to implement the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, a key enabler for Agenda 2030.