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    Lebanon Ill Prepared to Deal with Disasters

    In view of the recent disastrous events which have taken place on Lebanese soil (floods), deep beneath its ground (earthquakes) and in its air space (the Ethiopian air tragedy), a pertinent and necessary question must be asked: Is Lebanon ready for the next major disaster?
    Lebanon, like many other third world and Arab countries, is certainly not prepared to prevent major disasters nor is it ready to deal with their aftermaths. It is against this background that the author of this article was commissioned to carry out two studies for the United Nations Development Program to assess the needs and the capacities of the Lebanese government in the field of disaster risk reduction.
    With increased talk in the media about the need for a disaster risk reduction unit, it is useful to review in laymen’s terms the hazards that Lebanon is subjected to, the main ingredients of any disaster risk reduction unit, and what the main priorities should be for any disaster risk reduction unit in Lebanon over the next few years.

    The main hazards

    Lebanon could be subjected to a variety of hazards including earthquakes and tsunamis, storms, forest fires, desertification and drought, floods and landslides, chemical accidents leading to fires and explosions, environmental pollution, spread of epidemics and internal displacement, whether due to natural disasters or to man-made wars.

    Main Generic Responsibilities of a Disaster Risk Reduction Unit

    First, in setting policies and developing organizational structures. In any country, irrespective of whether it is a developed or a third world country, the generic elements of a successful and functioning disaster risk reduction unit must include:

    • Setting Policy: Effective health and safety policies set a clear direction for the public and private organizations to follow

    • Organizing: An effective management structure and arrangements are in place for delivering the policy.

    • Planning: A planned and systematic approach to implementing the health and safety policy through an effective health and safety management system.

    • Measuring Performance: Performance is measured against agreed standards in order to reveal when and where improvement is needed.

    • Auditing and Reviewing of Performance: The administration learns from all relevant experience and applies the lessons.

    Second, in assessing the level of risk. Usually a preliminary qualitative assessment of risk is carried out, taking into account the frequency of a particular hazard being realized and its consequences should it occur. For example, in a country like the United States or Japan where the frequency of disasters such as earthquakes is relatively high but where the consequences are low (due to awareness and proper enforcement of prevention procedures) the risk is low to medium. However, in other countries where the frequency of occurrence of disasters may be medium to low but where the consequences are high (due to lack of awareness and lack of procedures) then the risk of disasters would be very high.

    Third, in setting boundaries for tolerable and intolerable risks. Usually risks are divided into three regions:

    • A region where the risk is intolerable and must be reduced.

    • A region where risks are tolerable provided it can be demonstrated that risks have been reduced to as low as reasonably practicable.

    • A third region where risks are generally tolerable and there is no need for further reduction

    Fourth, in setting priorities for risk reduction measures. Each hazard has causes which may lead to it occurring and also has consequences when it occurs. It is best practice to put barriers to prevent the hazard from occurring if possible, and other barriers to prevent severe consequences once the hazard has occurred. In doing so, more emphasis must be placed on the first type of barriers which aim to prevent the hazard from taking place. In particular, the hierarchy for risk reduction measures is first to eliminate the risk and then to reduce it as follows:

    Step 1: Eliminate the risk from occurring (prevention)
    Step 2: Reduce the frequency of occurrence of the residual risks that could not be eliminated in step 1 above
    Step 3: Control the magnitude of the residual risk (control risk size and prevent its escalation)
    Step 4: Mitigate against the consequences of the risk (mitigation measures to reduce damage to lives, environment and property)
    Step 5: Emergency Evacuation and Response measures (EER)

    The advantages of the above hierarchy is that focusing on preventing a hazard from taking place is much more effective and cost efficient than dealing with the consequences of a disaster. However prevention measures require intervention at early stages within the lifecycle of a project and also need interdisciplinary liaison between all disciplines working on a particular project. These are two of the reasons why in third world countries, risk reduction measures are often limited to EER measures or at best to mitigation measures. This is very unfortunate since these third world countries often have very limited resources to allocate for risk reduction and the use of such resources for prevention efforts is much more effective (even from a financial reward point of view) than using the same resources for EER activities.

    Fifth, in determining the scope of hazards which must be studied. It is neither necessary nor feasible to eliminate risks to zero. In addition it is not required to manage risks whose possibility of occurrence is very remote. Equally true it is not necessary to waste time in trying to manage risks which cannot be managed (e.g. like the explosion of our sun).

    Sixth, in risk trade-offs. Rational risk management requires trade-offs, whether implicitly or explicitly, between risk and other factors. These trade-offs often occur at various levels:

    • Since resources are limited, risk reduction should take into account the cost of reducing risks. In this context the importance of prevention, and the necessity that risk reduction measures are proportional to the level of risk, becomes clearer.

    • Trade-offs are also carried out between one type of risk and another. For example reducing fires through the use of firewalls can lead to an increase in explosion risk which may be acceptable as long as the degree of the overall risk is reduced.

    • Trade-offs between risk and public benefit. For example we accept the level of risk associated with some activities due to the public benefit arising from these activities. Examples include rescue work and vaccination research.

    • Trade-offs on an individual level, such as accepting the dangers of learning how to swim in return for benefits of being able to swim in the future.

    Who sets the level of acceptable risk?

    The process of setting down criteria to determine the level of acceptable risk that a society is willing to tolerate on the life of its citizens, on the environment and on property varies between countries, between industries and between services offered by each industry. For example, in Europe this process is very well defined where the maximum level of tolerable risk on the life of workers in a particular installation (i.e. on those directly benefiting from a particular activity) is defined according to the levels of risk in specific dangerous industries (e.g. such as the mining industry). In addition the maximum level of tolerable risk on the lives of citizens not directly benefiting from a particular activity is determined by comparison to levels of risks and deaths in routine activities where these levels of risks are deemed acceptable (e.g. traffic accidents). In this context, it must be recognized that these levels of tolerable risk are tentative in nature and can be modified since they have been tied to levels of fatalities in mines and traffic accidents, and when public safety in these activities improves it is expected that stricter controls will be placed on tolerable levels of individual risk.

    According to modern hazard management philosophy, in addition to intolerable levels of individual risk there are also intolerable levels of societal risks. These are set by placing a maximum frequency on the accidents and events that may lead to multiple fatalities.

    Rationalization of Risk assessment and the ‘value’ of a life

    In the risk assessment process, a trade off is often made between the additional cost associated with a particular risk reduction measure and between the benefits associated with this risk reduction. This trade-off often places a value on the life of a human being to be able to measure the benefits of a particular risk reduction measure in order to compare it against the cost of such a measure. In Europe this value for a human life varies with the level of risk, ranging from one million euros for low risks up to ten million euros for high risks.
    However, how should levels of tolerable risk be determined in Lebanon and more importantly how is it currently determined? Is it determined by public administration or by private companies (both national and foreign)? Who should participate in the determination of levels of tolerable risk? What are the capacities which should be developed in order to be able to set limits on tolerable risk and ensure that various administrations and industries are abiding by these limits?
    How is this trade off done in Lebanon, if at all? In the first instance one might think that it is not done, because we are a traditional society with religion playing a strong role in our everyday lives and as such we place too high a value on human life that we refuse to attach a monetary amount to it. However, this is not true. These decisions are often made by officials, whether knowingly or not, more often in an implicit manner, when they decide to reduce a particular risk or when they decide against adopting a particular risk reduction measure. Let us take few examples.
    Let’s say we have a part of the infrastructure (e.g. a school, hospital, public building, etc) which has become very old or damaged due to war and is in dire need of rehabilitation. A decision needs to be made whether to simply rehabilitate it or to redesign it to become resistant to earthquakes. Let us assume that rehabilitating the building instead of redesigning will lead to 10 additional fatalities. Let us further assume that the saving in costs for opting for rehabilitation instead of redesign is equivalent to half a million US dollars. This means that when we decide to rehabilitate rather than redesign we would be valuing the value of a life as equivalent to $50,000.
    Another example is the case of an electricity generation plant or a refinery that was built many years ago in what was a remote urban area but has now become located in the middle of a residential area due to unchecked and unregulated urban expansion. Various measures may be adopted to reduce the risk to the population living in the vicinity of the plant or the refinery. After careful examination of the various risk reduction measures two have been identified as offering the best improvement in safety and we need to select only one for implementation. Let us assume that we choose the least costly method between the two and thus we ended up saving a total sum of $30,000. Let’s further assume that if we chose the other measure the probability of death of a citizen due to an accident would have been reduced to half its level after using the first measure. This implies that the value we attach to half a life is $30,000. In other words we do not deem it worthy to spend $60,000 to save a human life.
    On what basis should these decisions be made, and who are the various stakeholders that must be consulted in the decision making process? The answer to this question is among the priorities that any disaster risk reduction unit must focus on.

    Priorities for Disaster Risk Reduction in Lebanon

    Lebanon is now at crossroads where there is consensus within the political establishment on the need for a disaster risk reduction unit, at a relatively calm time when Lebanon is has a national unity government. Simultaneously, several international organizations are aware of the need to develop and strengthen risk reduction capabilities and institution in Lebanon and as such they are supporting various initiatives for this purpose.
    To contribute to the ongoing discussions and efforts, listed below is, in order of priority, the tasks that the soon-to-be-formed disaster risk reduction unit must carry out:

    • Decide on a strategy for managing risks, arising from various activities, in a uniform manner across all regions of Lebanon.

    • Decide on the frequency (and therefore severity) of the hazards that the main infrastructure elements must be designed to withstand. For example who decided on what is the frequency of the earthquake that dams in Lebanon are built to withstand? Is it the same across the country? Is this decision left to foreign companies building the dams?

    • Decide on levels of tolerable risk and levels of intolerable risks on both workers and individuals as well as levels of tolerable societal risk from various activities and industries. Embark on a process of national consultation with various stakeholders among the Lebanese citizenry, including professionals, workers, industrialists, unions, etc. to reach consensus on acceptable levels of risks.

    • Carry out a census of the level of risk on all main critical infrastructure elements (dams, ports, airports, schools, hospitals, malls, important government buildings, refineries, plants, etc) within the country, including touristic infrastructure (e.g. Baalbeck Roman remains, Jiita Groto, Byblos remains, etc). Compare the level of risk to acceptable levels of risks determined in step 3 above.

    • Decide on mechanisms for managing and reducing risks and upon a hierarchy for various risk reduction measures.

    • Embark on a national consultation process, taking into account the abilities and constraints of the Lebanese government, to reach a consensus on the amount of money to be spent to save a Lebanese life. These decisions are often made in an implicit manner and they should be done in an explicit manner so all stakeholder within society can participate.

    The unit should start work on a national plan for disaster management only after a clear strategy has been defined with associated tolerable levels of risk, as the plan must be developed in order to fulfill the goals defined by the strategy.
    Finally, it must be recognized that Lebanon has now a unique opportunity to create and develop functioning risk reduction strategies. Whether Lebanon will succeed or not depends to a large degree on how it will start the process in the few coming months.

    Fadi HAMDAN
    The Daily Star
    12.02.2010

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