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Closed Borders, Disaster Risks, and Disaster Relief Coordination in the Caucasus

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“A good neighbor is better than a good relative.” —  A popular proverb in Armenia

It is a common belief within Armenian society and culture that the neighbor is the closest, hence the most effective when one is in immediate need. The same should work for neighbors on the geographical map, yet that is not necessarily the case in the South Caucasus, a region with a high risk of earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters, and a region with conflicts and messy politics.

The whole year of 2010 has been devastating for Georgia for example, hit by a number of heavy rains, floods, and violent winds. Neighboring Armenia required two decades to recover from its devastating earthquake of 1988 (measuring 6.8 in magnitude, killing nearly 25,000, injuring 15,000, and leaving at least 400,000 homeless with three cities in rubble). Turkey suffered from a major quake on August 17, 1999, in the northwest. A 7.6 magnitude quake with its epicenter near Izmit killed over 17,000 and injured about 44,000. The damage was estimated at $8.5 billion. Another severe 7.2 temblor killed more than 700 in Duzce and nearby towns in November. On December 26, 2003, a 6.6 magnitude earthquake hit Iran, devastating the ancient historic city of Bam in southeast Iran, killing 26,200 people — 30,000 were injured and 75,000 left homeless, as mud-brick buildings collapsed.

Due to Armenia’s exposure to high seismic risk and the post-1988 earthquake capacity-building and international support, this small post-soviet country is pioneering in earthquake research and disaster relief expertise in the region. It has a full-fledged Ministry of Emergency Situations, a dedicated agency for rescue services. and the National Seismic Protection Service Agency. Armenian rescue teams have been part of major international disaster and earthquake rescue missions. Armenia most recently sent teams of heavily equipped firefighters to Russia to help the country cope with its worst wildfires in nearly four decades that killed at least 48 people. Armenia has one of the highest physician-to-population ratios in the world, an asset that can be effectively utilized for local, regional, or international emergency needs, should a system of management and training and relevant capacity be introduced. Emergency response structures and agencies are also functioning in other countries in the region. With the minor exception of some bilateral cooperation mechanisms and experience, these agencies largely work alone and independently from each other when mobilized.

Unfortunately, disaster response from outside is often being questioned, restricted, or banned due to political speculations. Back in 1999, for example, Armenia offered a rescue team to Turkey, but it rejected Armenian and Greek support due to historic animosity. With due NATO pressure Turkey did join this year’s NATO annual disaster response exercise held in Armenia from September 11 to 17. Organized by the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC), the exercise included 30 NATO and partner countries (including neighboring Georgia and Russia). While the exercise was meant to cope with the outcomes of an imaginary severe earthquake with a high number of casualties and widespread damage to critical infrastructure, it was ironic that due to closed borders, the Turkish delegation had to travel to Armenia via Georgia.

The disaster and earthquake threat is always in the air in the region. The last two quakes were as recent as January and August. A 3 magnitude-strong quake hit on January 26 at the Georgian-Azerbaijani border, 20 km west of the region of Gakh, and 3.56 strong one hit the Armenian-Turkish border on the night of August 6. With cross-border or border-proximate hits, response from the neighbors may be speedy and efficient, and the potential has to be used fully and efficiently for the sake of helping and saving lives. Earthquakes and disasters know no nationality, ethnicity, language, or geography, and neither should relief professionals and rescue teams.

The humanitarian and logistical support of neighboring countries cannot be overestimated. Neighboring countries most often are capable of rapid emergency response, provision of human and material resources, logistical support, food and sanitation aid, and vital access through ports, roads, and airports. These services channeled through neighbors, either by them directly or from international actors, make disaster response more effective, efficient, timely, quick, and cost-effective. Benefits to the neighboring relief providers are also notable and weighty. By providing emergency support the providing country may expect reciprocity, when in need. Providing support, saving lives, and contributing to stability and recovery in the neighboring country or the region significantly contributes to one’s own state security. Such relief and response may also significantly contribute to confidence-building and regional cooperation and integration.

Given the frequent occurrences of quakes, vulnerability of local populations, and relative advantages of some countries in response expertise, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran, and Russia should work together in shaping partnership and cooperation in disaster response and relief coordination.

For comprehensive natural disaster data see Earthquakes and Volcanic Eruptions at Infoplease.com: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0001439.html#ixzz0wndn4GvA



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