Armenia: Increasing Resilience by Reducing the Risk of Disaster

Shikahogh community residents suffer from landslides - Current challenge of UNDP

For years, the people of Sipanik expanded the area of land under cultivation in an attempt to grow more food. But each time the Hrazdan River thwarted the efforts of this small, remote community, situated in one of the most disaster-prone areas of Armenia. It swelled and flooded their crops, and the people had to start over once more.

“Over the past 72 years I have witnessed hundreds of natural disasters that have not only smashed roads, houses, and crops, but also gradually diminished our hope for a better life,” said Hovhannes Arakelyan, a resident of Sipanik.  “I always thought that we must be prepared for the next time, rather than act after disaster knocks at our door.”

Together with five other communities, Sipanik was selected by UNDP in 2008 to pilot an approach to harnessing the skills of communities to reduce the impact of disasters, as part of a 10-year effort to establish a national disaster risk reduction system. After 20 days of work, a 1,000 metre-long soil dam was built in Sipanik, protecting 80 houses from flooding.

“With this soil dam, our settlement is no longer damaged by rises in water levels,” said Anahit Hambardzumyan, a Sipanik resident. “We are even able to use productively our backyard plots for agricultural purposes. And most importantly, our children are safe from diseases caused by humidity.” Local residents contributed labour, machinery and 20 percent of the project costs.

These communities embody some of the local-level challenges that Armenia faces in preparing for disasters and reducing their impact.  One of the 60 most disaster-prone countries in the world, Armenia faces a heightened risk of such catastrophes as earthquakes, droughts and flooding.

In 1988 a huge earthquake struck, killing 25,000 people, injuring 15,000, and leaving 517,000 homeless. Today, according to the World Bank, eight out of every 10 Armenians are at risk of experiencing a disaster.

Until recently, many communities didn’t have working drainage systems, mudflow channels and soil dams. Neither was there a nationwide government-operated system to monitor incoming disasters before they strike, and a national system to coordinate the response, such as many more developed countries have.

UNDP assisted the Government of Armenia in establishing a national disaster risk reduction system. It helped the country make critical progress in developing local-level capacity to prepare for, and respond to, catastrophes. The goal has been to create a strong centre with resilient communities, to provide a critical safety net ensuring that progress can continue even when disaster strikes. 

Support for this effort has come from the World Bank, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, Swiss Development Cooperation, Germany‘s Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the World Food Programme, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Red Cross, UNICEF and OXFAM. UNDP provided international expertise in establishing a disaster risk reduction system, as well as assistance to communities in improving their preparedness. 

Building a national system

About 10 years ago, assisted by UNDP and other organizations, the authorities proceeded to revise related national legislation establishing a strong legal and regulatory framework for disaster risk reduction. Armenia committed to achieving the strategic goals of the Hyogo Framework for Action 2002-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters, an international strategy to which Armenia and 167 other countries are signatory.

By 2011, the Ministry of Emergency Situations had implemented a plan to decentralize the disaster risk reduction system in Armenia, appointing the heads of the Ministry’s regional representatives as regional focal points. It helped to improve the Ministry’s management capacities through the establishment of the Crisis Management Centre and National Disaster Observatory, which is connected to 18 ministries.

The purpose of the National Disaster Observatory is to systemically collect, analyse and interpret data, as well as share the information. For example, using more than 30,000 units of data, hazard maps were created to pinpoint the potential for landslides, mudflows, floods, and earthquakes.

The Observatory strengthens national disaster risk reduction systems, supports and facilitates national risk assessments, and periodically updates the country’s disaster risk profile, utilizing data in national disaster risk reduction policies.  Moreover, as the Observatory is housed in the Ministry’s Crisis Management Centre, it supports rapid analysis for early warning.

Some Highlights

  • A national disaster risk reduction system established in Armenia;
  • 95 communities have integrated disaster risk reduction into local community budgets;
  • 5,000 metres of drainage systems and 500 metres of mudflow channels were cleaned, and about 1,500 metres of soil dam were built;
  • 12,000 pieces of public information materials were distributed, raising people’s awareness of how to reduce their risk of disaster.

“The establishment of an effective system of disaster risk reduction is of vital importance for our country, not only in terms of risk management, but also in terms of poverty reduction and addressing socio-economic and environmental vulnerabilities,” says Armen Yeritsyan, Minister of Emergency Situations. “The partnership with UNDP has been essential and very productive – an exemplary cooperation between a government and an international organization that can be replicated in other corners of the world.”

Raising awareness

Working closely with the local authorities, including the Crisis Management State Academy – a state educational institution — UNDP helped to coordinate public awareness campaigns in 40 communities. An advocacy event dedicated to International Disaster Risk Reduction Day was organized with the participation of 11 organizations, widely engaging the mass media.

Local citizens in four regions of Armenia presented their vulnerability to disaster in the form of photo essays, to raise awareness of the importance of protecting community interests, and to encourage their participation in decision-making, planning, and implementation.

Better preparedness at the local level

Community-level efforts have been a critical element of the national disaster risk reduction work. In total 5,000 metres of drainage systems and 500 metres of mudflow channels were cleaned at the local level, and about 1,500 metres of soil dams were built.

In addition to dam construction, projects focused on cleaning drainage systems to prevent flooding and manage water tables on agricultural land that otherwise might be choked by salt. The measures helped to protect hundreds of hectares of land and households.

What is more, disaster risk reduction measures have been integrated into the local budgets of 95 communities. While Armenians cannot stop catastrophes from occurring, they can reduce the risk that disaster will derail development.

“We appreciate very much the fact that UNDP brought together those who wanted to help and defend us, and ensured that our voices were heard as much as those of decision-makers and experts,” said Arakelyan, the Sipanik resident. “The impact is obvious: I cultivate my land and reap the yield, even if the Hrazdan River floods again.”

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