This piece is part of the series “All About China”—a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through short articles that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...
The frequency and intensity of disasters arising from natural hazards such as earthquakes, storms, floods, heatwaves, and droughts has been increasing worldwide. Climate change, which affects global temperature and precipitation patterns, is heightening the risk of extreme weather-related disasters. These disasters pose a threat to human security, that is, to people’s physical health and safety, livelihoods and property, critical infrastructure, and food systems.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which is highly vulnerable to natural hazards, is one of the regions most exposed to negative climate impacts. Extreme weather and climate events, interacting with exposed and vulnerable human and natural systems, have caused the number of disasters in the region to surge. This interaction can also lead, and has led to conflicts, as evidenced recently in the case of Syria. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment, the climate is expected to become even hotter and drier in most of the MENA region, amplifying the stressors already at play.
Although disaster shocks can trigger cascading losses that exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities, the disruptive impacts of disasters on vulnerable communities can be reduced. Governments across the MENA region have undertaken efforts aimed at building resilience at the country and regional levels. But much remains to be done to further develop and implement locally tailored resilience strategies.
The United States and China, despite an intensifying global strategic rivalry, have a shared interest in the stability and development of Middle Eastern countries. There is both a pressing need and scope for Washington and Beijing, whether working in tandem or in parallel, to augment their support for resilience-building efforts in the MENA region.
Disasters Through a Human Security Lens
Over the past couple of years, the human security paradigm has garnered renewed interest, as seen in the release of the 2020 Human Development Report and the latest IPCC findings issued in August 2021, which frames climate change as a human security challenge.
The traditional security paradigm in international affairs is primarily concerned with military threats to the territorial integrity of States. But this state-centric military-focused approach to security tends to mask underlying political, economic, and environmental threats to societies. By contrast, “human security” is a holistic concept that gives primacy to human beings and recognizes that people face chronic threats that are beyond their control.
The Human Development Report (HDR) 1994, which coined the term “human security” within the UN system, identified its two main aspects as follows: “It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repressions. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life — whether in homes, in jobs or in communities. Such threats can exist at all levels of national income and development.”
A human security-centered framework considers a broad range of conditions that threaten survival, livelihood, and dignity. Climate change, which may disrupt the capacity of individuals and communities to adapt to changing conditions, poses a threat to human security.. By altering the frequency, intensity, and/or duration of various weather-related events, climate change can magnify disaster risk. It will also exacerbate disaster risk drivers for all hazards, including poverty, unchecked urban expansion, environmental degradation, and weak governance. These drivers increase vulnerability to all hazards — including man-made shocks and stresses.
According to the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO), climate change has helped drive a nearly fivefold rise in the number of weather-related disasters in the last 50 years. These disasters have led to substantial loss of life and staggering economic costs. Although the number of fatalities has fallen thanks to improvements in early warning systems and disaster management, nearly one billion people lack the ability to withstand or recover from the ecological threats that they will likely face in the coming decades.
Disasters can unleash cascading impacts across sectors: destroying housing stock, damaging ecosystems and food production systems, fueling competition for resources, triggering displacement and migration, and increasing social tension and governance challenges. But it is important to emphasize that the consequences of disasters are not borne equally across or within nations. This is because populations are neither uniformly exposed or vulnerable to hazards nor do they possess the same access to resources and capacity to anticipate, cope with, and recover from a natural hazard.
Disasters discriminate. Their impacts reflect affected populations’ differential exposure and vulnerability and are overlaid onto pre-existing socio-economic conditions. People living in poverty and other marginalized communities suffer the effects disproportionately. Beyond the immediate losses they sustain to their assets and livelihoods is the prospect they face of being kept in or plunged back into poverty and distress. Therefore, measures aimed at addressing risk and vulnerability must account for these differential impacts and outcomes of disasters.
To be sure, risk cannot be eliminated. It is therefore necessary to combine actions to reduce exposure and vulnerability with those that seek to improve people’s ability to cope with unavoidable shocks. The adoption of the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-2015) to build the resilience of nations and communities to disasters represented an acknowledgment of the need to reduce the underlying causes of disasters linked to societies’ vulnerabilities. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) 2015–2030 emphasized the need for “a more people-centered preventive approach to disaster risk” through practices that are “multi-hazard and multi-sectoral, inclusive and accessible. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development reaffirmed the urgent need to reduce disaster risk.
In line with the Sendai Framework and the 2030 Agenda, both Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Climate Change Adaptation (CCA) seek to build resilience to hazards in the context of sustainable development. Significant progress has been made over the past decade in connecting the DDR and CCA communities and integrating their agendas. There has been greater coordination of efforts between affected countries and the international community. And improvements have been made in the ability to identify and reduce risk, prepare for disaster, mitigate its financial costs, and build more resilient communities. Encouragingly, most nations are working on national adaptation plans, and the number of adaptation projects is growing worldwide. Over 100 countries have reported that a national DRR strategy is in place.
However, the so-called “DRR strategy” employed in many low-income and least developed countries is actually a disaster management strategy — one geared toward reacting to disasters after they have occurred rather than focused on preventing new and reducing existing disaster risk and tackling residual risk. Moreover, huge gaps remain in finance for developing countries and in bringing adaptation projects to the point where they protect against climate impacts such as droughts, floods, and sea-level rise. And relatively few countries have developed inclusive disaster policy for the marginalized groups covered in the Sendai Framework. Thus, though much has been accomplished, much more needs to be done.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Collides with Climate Change
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) faces a set of complex and interlinked challenges and is one of the global hotspots for climate change. The MENA is among the driest and most water stressed regions of the world, and the effects of climate change are already being widely felt.
The Dead Sea has shrunk by almost a third in the last two decades, due to lower rainfall and higher temperatures leading to increased evaporation. As the result of sea-level rise, cities such as Alexandria, Egypt and Basra, Iraq are at high risk of inundation. The combination of extreme water scarcity and salt water intrusion in these and other low-lying coastal urban centers across the MENA present or amplify a host of challenges to human security.
Over the past several years, the region has also experienced record-setting searing heat and a prolonged drought. Peak temperatures during these recent heatwaves have been life-threatening. According to one study, unprecedented “super-extreme” and “ultra-extreme” heatwaves are likely to start to appear by mid-century and could become common summer conditions by the end of the century. This is especially worrisome given that the exposed human population is expected to be concentrated in large urban centers, many of which are already at risk.
The Middle East and North Africa is no stranger to natural hazards and extreme weather events. A World Bank report issued in 2014 found that the number of natural disasters in the MENA region had tripled since the 1980s. Dust and sandstorms are a perennial and growing problem across the MENA, including the Gulf, causing serious respiratory and other health disorders, and wearing down infrastructure. Due to changes in the seasonal distribution and intensity of rainfall, instances of severe flash flooding have been occurring with increasing frequency. Additionally, over the past three years, the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula have been battered by sudden violent storms and powerful cyclones.
Climate change is expected to place additional strain on water resources and agricultural production. Growth of foodstuff production has already considerably fallen behind the growth of food demand. Decreasing food production drives up the cost of the minimum food basket for sustenance, disproportionately hurting those already living at or beneath the poverty line while threatening to push many more people into poverty. With water availability declining and substantial portions of the region’s sparse arable land scorched by extreme heat, food security and rural livelihoods are under threat.
The conditions in the MENA region vividly illustrate the complexity of hazard risks and the interplay between them. Food, water, health, habitat, infrastructure, and ecosystem services sectors are all vulnerable. There are also risks of compounded crisis — with floods, storms, hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires overlapping with disease outbreaks, violence and conflict, weak governance, socioeconomic crisis, and conditions of extreme marginalization.
Preventable Losses: Scope for US-China Collaboration?
There is no doubt that the MENA region faces a multitude of dynamic and systemic risks that are situated within a context of inequality, vulnerability and fragility, non-sustainable consumption and production patterns, and conflict. However, a dystopian future in which the countries of the region are engulfed in “water wars,” experience massive population displacements, or become uninhabitable is not inevitable.
Disaster risk reduction measures that build community capacity and are tailored to local conditions can help lessen exposure and vulnerability and increase resilience to potential adverse impacts of disasters related to severe weather and climate events, geophysical hazards, and skewed development processes. Taking account of transboundary/regional risks, cross-border and regional cooperation can complement community-based disaster risk reduction activities. Equally important is the role that international cooperation can play in advancing the thinking and the practice of DRR.
In fact, greater international cooperation is essential to the success of national strategies for disaster risk reduction. International cooperation in DRR can support locally led knowledge production and political engagement, help fill critical capacity gaps, furnish additional resources to strengthen multi-stakeholder work, and advocate for inclusive, participatory approaches to address development challenges and build equitable resilience. Given their individual capacities and global influence, the United States and China have the potential to contribute to DRR efforts, including in the MENA region, in substantive and impactful ways.
For China, which is one of the world’s most natural disaster-affected countries, DRR begins at home. In recent years China has shifted from reactive disaster management activities to proactive disaster risk reduction planning and has undertaken major DRR reforms. Moreover, disaster prevention, recovery capacity enhancement, risk management, and comprehensive prevention received greater attention in the main tasks and initiatives of China’s 12th (2011-15) and 13th (2016-20) than in previous Five-Year Plans (FYP).
On the external front, China’s disaster-reduction cooperation has, for the most part, taken place within the framework of the United Nations through partnerships with UN agencies while its participation in dialogues and exchanges have primarily focused on its immediate periphery through regional organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). But this pattern, too, has been changing. In recent years, China has expressed the desire to strengthen international cooperation in DRR knowledge exchange, international coordination, and technological research collaboration. In May 2019, China and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to promote collaboration and mutual assistance on disaster risk reduction and emergency response worldwide. The session on “Disaster Management and Sustainable Development” organized by the Ministry of Emergency Management at the April 2021 Bao Forum conference is indicative of China’s increasing interest in strengthening international cooperation around disaster risk reduction to protect development investments and gains.
The concrete steps that Beijing has taken in recent years to solidify this cooperative role in DRR opens the possibility for US-China collaboration. So, too, does the direction of US policy. The United States has scaled up its commitment to working with multilateral partners and host governments in support of DRR activities. Collaboration to address disaster risk would not be entirely new, as the US and China have conducted disaster management exchanges and have continued to hold joint disaster management exercises (DME) between the two militaries even as bilateral relations have deteriorated. And despite a badly strained relationship with China, the United States has signaled its willingness to revive bilateral collaboration on climate change — collaboration that could conceivably encompass disaster risk reduction.
The Middle East and North Africa is a region where American and Chinese interests intersect — but are not fundamentally incompatible. On the contrary, it is a region where both countries have a stake not only in ensuring energy security but also in mitigating conflict and promoting stability. The US already extends DRR support to MENA partners. The increasing frequency and intensity of disasters in Maritime Silk Road countries was the impetus for China’s prioritization of research on and forging of partnerships in disaster and risk management.
Focusing US-China collaboration on DDR in the Middle East and North Africa would serve a pressing need, for, as previously demonstrated, the region is highly exposed to a variety of natural hazards and climate change risks. Moreover, most MENA countries lack both coping and adaptive capacities. Failure to manage disaster risk in the MENA region may fuel new or existing conflicts, exacerbate fragility, and undermine development gains. US-China collaboration within the broader context of more robust international cooperation to support DRR can help avert these outcomes.
There are various modalities and channels of delivery for international cooperation that could be employed in support of DRR in the MENA region. One such modality is triangular cooperation; that is, joint assistance, leveraging the strengths of a “pivotal partner” (normally an emerging country, such as China) and a “traditional partner” (usually a traditional donor, such as the United States), to generate positive impacts for third-country beneficiaries. Their differences in aid policies and practices notwithstanding, the US and China have engaged in trilateral aid cooperation.
Financing, capacity building, and knowledge and information sharing are integral components of assistance in disaster risk reduction. There is ample scope for US-China collaboration in each of these areas as they relate to the MENA region.
Financing for Disaster Risk Reduction: Funding for DRR makes up a very small fraction of overall investments in development aid. Given the climate change trajectory, the global financing gap will likely continue to widen. The US and China could commit to dedicating additional financial resources for resilient, sustainable infrastructure. They could both seek to balance the composition of assistance and foreign direct investment (FDI) to MENA countries so that financing is distributed evenly, from development to disaster response and prevention. And they could encourage their MENA partners to shift the focus in allocations of public financial resources in DRR away from post-disaster relief and toward strengthening resilience.
Capacity Building: Locally generated, owned, and sustained capacity is key to achieving disaster risk reduction. The US and China could encourage and bolster sub-regional cooperative approaches to addressing hazard risk, such as Saudi-Jordanian efforts to improve early flood warning systems (EFWS) and develop and implement sustainable plans to handle flash flood problems. Beyond technical assistance, US-China collaboration could aim to help create an enabling environment for capacity building in policy dialogues with MENA partners by encouraging strong political ownership and commitment at the highest levels of authority.
Knowledge and Information Sharing: The provision of information alone is unlikely to prevent disasters from occurring. Risk assessments and warning systems that focus on hazards but without addressing social vulnerability and resilience are inadequate. The US and China could contribute to reducing disaster risk in the MENA region by helping improve knowledge management, through advocating for and supporting inclusive, participatory risk governance.
We have entered the age of systemic risks. These risks emerge from the interplay between natural hazards and climate change and are marked by elements of surprise and non-linearity. The COVID-19 global pandemic and associated lockdowns revealed what systemic risk looks like: claiming millions of lives; devastating communities and economies; and severely disrupting or overwhelming essential services and infrastructure. The pandemic also vividly illustrated the limitations of a hazard-by-hazard, siloed approach to risk management.
The Middle East and North Africa is a complex and dynamic risk landscape wherein vulnerability to natural hazards such as floods and droughts is increasing. In addition, small-scale recurrent and large-scale infrequent disasters are becoming more destructive partly due to climate change. Yet, there are still opportunities to reduce the risks of disaster. Enhanced international cooperation on disaster risk reduction can be instrumental in lessening vulnerability and building resilience across the MENA region. In this regard, there is scope for the United States and China — both with important equities in the region and a shared interest in its stability — to join forces in supporting national and local efforts to prevent, prepare for, and mitigate the effects of disasters.
Thanks to Dr. Fadi Hamdan for his valuable comments and suggestions in the preparation of this article.
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 CCA aims to build adaptive capacity and reduce vulnerability to unavoidable adverse impacts of climate change.
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 United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance, “Development and Disaster Risk Reduction: Middle East, North Africa and Europe,” Fiscal Year (F/Y) 2020, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/USAID%20Bureau%20for%20Humanitarian%20Assistance%20-%20Development%20and%20Disaster%20Risk%20Reduction%20-%20Middle%20East%2C%20North%20Africa%2C%20and%20Europe%20-%20Fiscal%20Year%20%28FY%29%202020.pdf; and USAID, Middle East Regional Cooperation (M.E.R.C.), https://www.usaid.gov/where-we-work/middle-east/merc.
 Yu Lei et al., “An international program on Silk Road Disaster Risk Reduction–a Belt and Road initiative (2016–2020),” Journal of Mountain Science 15 (2018):1383-1396.
 Lotte Kirch et al., WorldRiskReport Analysis and prospects 2017, http://weltrisikobericht.de/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/WRR_2017_E2.pdf.
 See Sebastian Prantz and Xiaomin Zhang, “Triangular Cooperation: Different Approaches, Same Modality,” IDS Bulletin 52, 2 (2021), https://bulletin.ids.ac.uk/index.php/idsbo/article/view/3137/3159.
 Denghua Zhang, “US-China Development Cooperation: New Bilateral Dynamics?” Asia Pacific Bulletin 440 (September 13, 2018), https://www.eastwestcenter.org/system/tdf/private/apb440_1.pdf?file=1&type=node&id=36781.
 UNDRR, International Cooperation in Disaster Risk Reduction: Target F, October 19, 2021, https://www.undrr.org/news/covid-19-and-extreme-weather-highlight-folly-low-investment-disaster-prevention.
 UN Capacity for Disaster Reduction Initiative (CaDRi), “Basics for Capacity Development for Disaster Risk Reduction,” https://www.preventionweb.net/files/globalplatform/entry_bg_paper~basicofcapacitydevelopmentfordisasterriskreduction.pdf; and UNDRR, Strategic Approach to Capacity Development for Implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, May 2019, https://www.preventionweb.net/files/58211_fullconciseguide.pdf.