Monday, October 25, 2010

UN disaster expert: Lebanon ill prepared to face future crisis

By Simona Sikimic
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Lebanon is ill prepared in case of a long-overdue earthquake, or another large-scale disaster, a leading UN expert warned on Friday.

While the various response agencies, like the Lebanese Army, Civil Defense and Red Cross, are mostly adequate in their own right, the coordination between agencies is extremely poor and seriously inhibits Lebanon’s ability to react when disaster strikes, said disaster expert Zoubair Morched, leading the UN Development Fund’s (UNDP) regional strategy.

The High Relief Council, tasked with coordinating relief efforts, presently doesn’t function and this “missing” crucial link must be strengthened and reformed, he said.

The UNDP is currently undergoing a national risk evaluation, mapping out areas deemed the most vulnerable and deciphering how emergency services should respond in times of crisis. Conclusive findings, however, are not expected until the end of the year, with the hope that they will begin to make an administrative impact by mid 2011.

“Once we get the full plan we hope to bring it to the attentions of the premier and president and all the other political parties and get a broad agreement from them for a disaster strategy,” Morched told The Daily Star.

“The issue is political because it requires various different ministries to be strengthened, their roles expanded and for greater coordination to take place between them. This can be difficult, but it is our role to make people realize that the issue itself is not political and that disaster prevention is in everyone’s interest.”

Formulating a disaster strategy is a lengthy and complicated process which can, even in the best of cases, take decades. This, however, should not mitigate the need to implement effective plans because while disasters are often hard to avert, preparing for them can severely reduce the impact on the civilian population.

Ensuring that people can be evacuated quickly, that electricity and water supplies will continue to function, even if primary routes are destroyed or severely crippled, and that hospitals will be able to cope with a mass influx of people are all vital part of disaster response.

As demonstrated by the 2006 summer war with Israel, international response teams can be highly effective but they cannot compensate for the local first-line response. The first 24 hours in a rescue operation are often crucial and after two or three days after a disaster the chances of finding people still alive is significantly reduced, Morched said.

Although it is near impossible to predict when an earthquake will strike and what intensity it may be, Lebanon, and much of the region, rests at the crossroads of several tectonic plates, and despite being relatively seismically stable of late, historic trends indicate that large-scale tremors happen every 200 years or so.

Should one strike, the effects could be dire. The mass of the population is located in coastal areas, deemed to be most at risk, and the regular and open flouting of building regulation, as well as the preference for glass and other fragile materials mean many buildings may not be able to cope, explained Morched.

Most larger and public buildings are supposed to withstand quakes of magnitude 6 on the Richter Scale, but many hotels are not thought to be sturdy enough and it is not known what would happen if a larger quake struck the country.

Aside from quakes, Lebanon is also prone to, but unprepared for, flooding, tsunamis and wars. But unlike its neighbors, Lebanon is lucky in that it does not have to grapple with drought and its higher level of precipitation and forest cover, mean that this is not expected to become a major concern for at least the next decade, Morched said.

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