Year of deadly disasters should put better readiness high on region's 2024 to-do list

Death toll from flooding and earthquakes in the Middle East in 2023 need not have been so high, experts say

The devastation after the floods in Derna, Libya. Getty Images
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Natural disasters claimed tens of thousands of lives in the Middle East and North Africa region in 2023, particularly the earthquakes in Turkey and Morocco and flash floods in the Libyan city of Derna.

While little can be done to prevent or accurately predict such calamities, measures can be taken to reduce their toll, experts say.

February's earthquake in Turkey, which also devastated large parts of neighbouring Syria, killed well over 55,000, while around 3,000 died after a quake in September in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Much of the instability in the Mena region is because the Arabian tectonic plate, which includes the Arabian Peninsula, is moving north-east by 1.4 to 1.8 centimetres a year.

It comes up against the Eurasian plate, and the enormous forces generated are released periodically as seismic activity in an area that includes Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.

North African countries such as Morocco and Algeria have suffered severe earthquakes because of the north-eastern movement – more than 2cm a year – of the African plate.

While nothing can be done to prevent the earthquakes, lives could be saved by ensuring that buildings are better able to cope with strong tremors.

"The earthquake itself you cannot do anything about, but if we designed the structures to be resistant to earthquakes, lots of the damage could be prevented," said John Douglas, who researches seismic hazards at the University of Strathclyde in the UK.

"You cannot prevent the damage, but the collapses we saw in Turkey, with relatively modern buildings – that shouldn’t have really happened if you design your structures with the most recent design codes and proper materials."

Typically, he said, the problem in some countries in the region was the enforcement of building codes, rather than the codes themselves.

"In Morocco a lot of the structures were older structures, poorer quality materials, where they don’t have much resistance, and because they’re old, they’re not very well maintained and more vulnerable to the earthquake shaking," he said.

Other parts of the world have shown that buildings can be constructed to resist the impacts of earthquakes, such as Japan, California and New Zealand.

New Zealand, for example, experienced significant earthquakes affecting urban areas in 2010 and 2011, and while there were scores of fatalities in Christchurch in a February 2011 quake, with some building collapses, such instances were "nowhere near on the scale of Turkey" earlier this year, Mr Douglas said.

It is likely that there are many buildings in the Mena region that would be extremely vulnerable in the event of further seismic activity, but things can be done to reduce the dangers.

These include retrofitting buildings to make them more resistant, said Diana Contreras Mojica, a lecturer in geospatial sciences at Cardiff University in the UK.

They may not be able to resist damage altogether, but they should remain standing.

The biggest stories of 2023 in 60 seconds

The biggest stories of 2023 in 60 seconds

"The idea is that they manage to withstand while the earthquake [is happening] and allow the people to evacuate," she said.

Columns and other external structures can be added to buildings, giving greater strength that can prevent collapse.

Nepal offers a good example of successful retrofitting, Ms Contreras Mojica said. More than 100 schools, most in the Kathmandu Valley, were strengthened, in part thanks to aid money, and when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck in 2015, all remained standing.

Behavioural as well as physical changes can also reduce death rates, she said.

"It’s raising awareness among the population and preparing the population to respond. So people know how to react in the case of an earthquake, where to go … preparedness in first aid."

As well as earthquakes, the Mena region was hit by severe floods in 2023, notably in the Libyan port city of Derna, where thousands died in September after two dams burst following severe rains from Storm Daniel.

As with the earthquakes, the devastation was arguably as much caused by human failures as by nature’s malign power.

Cracks had reportedly been identified in the dams a quarter of a century ago and the structures were said to have not been maintained for two decades.

Climate change is another potential factor, with scientists calculating that the extreme rains like those that hit Libya are now 50 times more likely to happen than they once were.

Yemen and Oman were among the other parts of the Mena region to experience severe flooding this year, such as during Cyclone Tej in October.

As climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather, the risks will grow, highlighting the need for better preparedness to protect communities.

Updated: December 28, 2023, 11:39 AM