Hovhannes Arakelyan has witnessed hundreds of floods in his remote village of Sipanik, in Western Armenia. “I have seen smashed roads, houses, and crops, and disasters used to diminish our hope for a better life,” says the 72-year-old.
Sipanik’s regular inundation when the Hrazdan River floods is just one of the catastrophes that many Armenians experience annually, which cost the country over US$ 33 million each year. The country’s geographic location makes it one of the 60 most disaster-prone countries in the world, with a heightened risk of earthquakes, droughts and flooding. An earthquake that struck in 1988 killed 25,000 people, destroyed almost an entire town and left 517,000 homeless.
Until UNDP started working in the country in 1997, there was no government-operated system to monitor disasters, or coordinate a response. Many communities, like Sipanik, lacked basic infrastructure to prevent catastrophes, such as drainage systems, mudflow channels and soil dams.
But Armenia has shifted from reacting to disasters, to proactively reducing the risk. UNDP is helping the government to better prepare for catastrophe by providing money, advice and international experts to the country’s first disaster coordination centre and observatory.
Armen Yeritsyan, Minister of Emergency Situations in Armenia, recently highlighted the importance of UNDP’s work in this area. “The establishment of an effective system of disaster risk reduction is of vital importance for our country, not only in terms of risk management, but also in terms of poverty reduction and addressing socio-economic and environmental vulnerabilities,” he said.
The centre has been collecting and analyzing data that is helping the government to pinpoint high risk areas in each region. For example, in 2008, it identified the village of Sipanik as a high risk area. As a result, the village, together with five other communities, received assistance from UNDP to build a one km long soil dam, which since then has protected 80 houses from flooding. Local residents contributed labour, machinery and 20 percent of the project costs.
This has allowed the people of Sipanik to grow more food without the risk of losing crops due to floods. “I always thought that we must be prepared for the next time, rather than act after disaster knocks at our door,” says Arakelyan.
“With this dam, our settlement is no longer damaged by rises in water levels,” said Anahit Hambardzumyan, another Sipanik resident. “We are even able to use the land in our backyards for agriculture. And most importantly, our children are safe.”