Aqaba - The host of this week's First Arab Regional Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, the busy Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba, has become the first city in the region to be recognized by UNISDR's Making Cities Resilient Campaign as a role model.
The fast developing port city and tourist destination is making a virtue of its exposure to seismic risk and flash floods by promoting its growing disaster risk management capacity in order to instill confidence in investors and tourists that strong measures are being taken to protect the city and its population from future risks.
Land use planning and building codes are enforced and the city is making meticulous plans to protect biodiversity and marine life as it embarks on several major developments including the re-location of its port facilities. Every new investment project must be accompanied by an environmental impact assessment.
The Chief Commissioner of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA), Dr Kamel Mahadin, said Aqaba was proud to be acknowledged by UNISDR as a role model city for its efforts to build resilience to disasters.
Speaking at the opening of the Conference, Dr. Mahadin said: "The ancient name for Aqaba is Ayla, meaning in Arabic 'on the verge of collapse.' Geologically speaking, Aqaba is always prone to disasters and thus needs to adopt a disaster risk reduction strategy."
The city has seen investment flows of $10 billion in the last three years and is on course for dramatic growth with the planned addition of over 30,000 new homes and apartments.
During a visit to ASEZA's HQ overlooking the city, UNISDR Chief, Margareta Wahlström, was told by Dr. Mahadin that the city had achieved a lot but there was more to be done. His latest innovation is to start a programme which will brief passengers on visiting cruise ships about the pro-active measures being taken by the city to ensure their safety from natural hazards.
UNISDR Chief, Margareta Wahlström, said: "It is refreshing to hear from a city which is so open about the challenges it faces in its future development. I believe that Aqaba is an example not just for the region but for many cities around the world which would benefit from improved land use planning and building codes to reassure citizens and investors alike. Economic losses are on the rise and cities like Aqaba are key to efforts to reverse this trend."
Aqaba's Commissioner for Environment and Health Control, Dr. Muhanned Adnan Hararah, cites the partnership with the Jordanian Royal Scientific Society, UNDP and Swiss Development Cooperation, in 2004, as an important landmark in the history of disaster risk management in the region as it produced the first seismic risk assessment for the city.
The ASEZA Disaster Risk Management Unit was established in 2011 with the support of UNDP and has gone from strength to strength under the leadership of Khalid Abu Aisheh who is an engineer and architect by background and cheerfully admits that he knew little about the subject until then.
He is passionate about the work of his unit. "We want visitors to feel safe when you are here in Aqaba and to let them know that we are doing our best to keep them safe here. It's the same with the business community," he says.
The city's commitment to disaster risk reduction is being recognized at a crucial time in its development as it embarks on a major project to transfer the main port 20 kms from the downtown area.
An outstanding feature of the city's strategy for building resilience, is Commissioner Hararah's commitment to safeguarding the coral reefs for which Aqaba is famous as the city prepares to relocate the port facilities.
He said: "A major challenge is the transporting of corals from one place to another but we've a good experience now. We have four sites. One where we are rehabilitating damaged coral. Another where we teach students and the public. A third for divers. And a fourth where we are farming the coral. We want to protect our marine life."
Other highlights of Aqaba's disaster risk reduction programming cited by UNDP country director, Zena Ali-Ahmad, include "comprehensive DRR (disaster risk reduction) awareness-raising campaigns reaching tens of thousands of school students and setting up a pilot team of Neighbourhood Disaster Volunteers to strengthen community-based DRR."
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