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Preparing for the worst in Lebanon

Knowledge about how to improve crisis prevention and management has been shared by professor Odd Einar Olsen from the University of Stavanger (UiS) with the Lebanese government.

This five-month assignment arose out of Odd Einar Olsen’s long-standing involvement on behalf of the Norwegian Refugee Council and the UN in various crisis-hit parts of the world.

As member of the refugee council’s emergency response team, he has worked on crisis management in Somalia and Sierra Leone and written a number of academic articles on this subject.

The UN asked him in 2012 to advise the Lebanese government on how it could think preventively about crises. He was in the Middle Eastern country from January to June 2013.

«Particularly since the Haiti earthquake in 2010, when 200-300 000 people died, the UN as well as private and voluntary organisations have become even more focused on how to prevent crises by being better prepared,» Olsen explains.

«That’s what they’re now trying to do in Lebanon.»

Society at breaking point
«Lebanon is a country with many potential crises, including earthquakes and other natural disasters and military conflicts which could spread from neighbouring Syria,» says Olsen.

«The same groups fighting in Syria also live in Lebanon, and they’ve been in conflict for a long time. Having Israel as a neighbour to the south and Syria to the north and east presents particularly substantial challenges.»

He says that Lebanese society will soon be at breaking point. With little over four million inhabitants, the country has taken in more than a million Syrian refugees. Several hundred thousand Palestinians fleeing Israel have also lived there for decades.

«The flood of refugees is one of the biggest challenges for the country, on top of the considerable threat of earthquakes and other natural disasters,» says Olsen. He adds: «If an earthquake was to strike, houses and buildings would soon collapse».

One of his particular academic interests is disaster risk reduction – the set of theories and methods aimed at reducing the risk of such events.

«Interest in this discipline has increased greatly after a number of major destructive incidents caused by storms and floods in many parts of the world,» he observes.

Palatial quarters
During his time in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, Olsen had his office in the old Ottoman palace where the prime minister and other government members are located.

His work included developing plans and measures which permit contingency planning and crisis prevention at local level. This effort built on a new legislation aimed at strengthening emergency preparedness.

«Nobody knows the technical quality of a number of Beirut’s tall buildings, for example,» he notes. «These structures aren’t designed to withstand earthquakes, and nobody is held responsible if they collapse and add to the death rate.»

«The legal framework and allocation of liability make it difficult to work on emergency preparedness in Lebanon,» Olsen admits.

Challenges include poor-quality buildings, great social unrest in the surrounding region and a strongly centralised state where local authorities and communities lack resources.

Eighteen different religious groups are also involved in the government apparatus, which has been structured to ensure that these faiths balance each other out.

«The position in Lebanon is very complex,» Olsen says. «Achieving good collaboration between different parts of its society is a balancing act.»

At the same time, he praises the country for making a commitment to prevention when the conditions are so challenging.

«The basic fragility of cooperation between the various groups makes it even more difficult to collaborate when a crisis occurs. But the government’s focus on prevention is an important step.»
 

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Explosion in Beirut (Photo: NTB Scanpix/Abaca)

AT BREAKING POINT: UiS professor Odd Einar Olsen notes that buildings in Lebanon are not designed to cope with earthquakes, and nobody is held liable when they collapse and add to the death toll. He has served as an adviser to the Lebanese government. (Photo: NTB Scanpix/Abaca)