The Central Asia Initiative of the European Union during the COVID-19 crisis: The way forward in preparing for and managing risks
The spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 continues to be a challenge for all states around the globe. The Member States of the European Union have experienced first-hand how deadly the risks of the virus can be and how important it is to be prepared and mitigate the risk of any type of emergency. Since the start of the pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, the European Union has been in close touch with all the international development partners to stem the spread of COVID-19, provide medical care, and mitigate the economic consequences of the pandemic. The European Union has helped communities at large in effective preparedness and disaster response to shocks – be it economic, natural disasters, health pandemics, or man-made crises.
While COVID-19 keeps challenging all five countries of Central Asia at an unprecedented scale, through existing programs, the European Union supports both resilient and sustainable political and economic frameworks that can prepare governments for future emergencies. One such program of the European Union is the action for Strengthening Financial Resilience and Accelerating Risk Reduction in Central Asia, which started its implementation in July 2019. The indicative span of the EU-funded Initiative is almost 4 years with the overall objective to strengthen Central Asian countries’ resilience to disasters and climate risks by enhancing financial resilience, risk identification capacity, and improved risk management. Even though the Initiative strongly contributes to the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 and supports Central Asia’s efforts in achieving selected Sustainable Development Goals, when COVID-19 hit Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – it was decided to expand the scope and integrate risk of health emergencies more prominently into the original framework of the program.
The EU-funded Initiative is divided into two result areas. In collaboration with a number of partners, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) supports the countries of the Central Asia region to build resilience and disaster risk reduction (DRR) through one of the result areas of the Initiative. This result area builds the foundation for greater resilience in Central Asia through data, capacity, governance, and cooperation at regional, national and local levels. The European Union also appointed the World Bank under the management of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) to implement a second result area focused on strengthening the evidence and capacity for financial resilience and risk reduction at national and regional levels in Central Asia. Both result areas are implemented in close collaboration with the Almaty-based Centre for Emergency Situations and Disaster Risk Reduction (CESDRR).
The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and its disastrous socio-economic impacts have underlined the importance of foreseeing new emerging risks, having solid disaster risk management and disaster risk finance strategies in place, better preparing for mitigating their impact and for reconstructing with better capacities and higher resilience. Beneficiaries still pay great attention to natural hazards and most of the work under the Initiative can be applied to responding to health or pandemic crises.
The International Disaster Database, EM-DAT, reports that since the start of 2020, more than 113,000 people in Central Asia were affected by different types of disasters. Climate change is exacerbating the intensity of disasters and the COVID-19 crisis worsens the impact on the communities, especially the most vulnerable and the poor. One of the main side-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has further deepened existing vulnerabilities and challenges in terms of disaster and risk management. This shows that governments and societies need to better understand risks to manage them, especially when looking at how they can cascade or multiply with unexpected and potentially severe consequences. This aspect is vital to the countries of Central Asia, where often one hazard rapidly leads to another, making disaster management an even more urgent matter.
Thus, as a response to the pandemic through the EU-funded Initiative, UNDRR has already contributed to reducing disaster risk especially at the national level by training many national technical officers in DRR, collecting, and managing disaster loss information, and building resilience at the local level. The Initiative is implemented by the UNDRR in collaboration with a number of partners, including CESDRR, CIMA Foundation, Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC). It is carried out in each country of the region and the activities are adapted to the unique disaster risk background.
As all countries seek to recover from the pandemic, UNDRR continues to support capacity building activities of national and local partners in Central Asia, building in a transformational approach to DRR. The COVID-19 pandemic and growing climate change impacts have demonstrated the need for reassessing the approach in DRR across the countries. There is a need to increase resilience at all levels and sectors, with strategies to address a large range of hazards and socio-economic factors. Furthermore, strengthened dialogue between Central Asian states continues to support closer cooperation in the region to better prepare for the cascading impacts of the pandemic and to reduce existing and future risks.
In support of strengthening DRR dialogue, a Member State dialogue brought together National Emergency Management Organizations, Ministries of Health, Sendai Focal Points, International Health Regulations Focal Points, emergency response and risk reduction entities, representatives of the European Union and United Nations system organizations in September 2020. The discussion analysed best practices learnt from the ongoing COVID-19 response, the potential for cascading effects, and effective measures to recover and build back better. Together with on-going activities under the Initiative, there is a new momentum in the region to increase action on DRR and resilience and to work collectively to overcome this crisis.
Focusing on a transformative approach to DRR in the face of the ongoing pandemic, the governments of Central Asia countries resolved to develop and strengthen coordination on DRR at a sub-regional level. The Forum of Heads of National Disaster Management Authorities (NDMAs) convened in November 2021 to adopt the Regional DRR Strategy for 2022-2030 and the Roadmap for its implementation in 2022-2023. Preceded by a number of regional declarations and statements, the first-ever regional strategy for DRR in Central Asia aims to join efforts in strengthening the focus on transboundary hazards, including biological hazards and climate-related risks, improving investments in risk reduction, and enhancing preparedness for response. The Heads of NDMAs also adopted a draft Regional Risk Profile, which technical experts from the four countries will periodically update to reflect the changing risk landscape.
Through the global Making Cities Resilient initiative, known as MCR2030, UNDRR supports the five capital cities of the region to build disaster resilience with a special focus on health systems in the current COVID-19 context, and in line with priorities of the Socio-Economic Response and Recovery Plans at country level. This is especially important at a time when across the region, every single country is facing a real threat of COVID-19 resurgence, or already fighting it. COVID-19 has challenged health systems in particular and demonstrated the need for a whole-of-government approach that leverages the capacities of all relevant departments, with local government bodies responsible for disaster risk playing a crucial role. Thus, a number of Central Asian capital cities have taken significant steps forward in strengthening city resilience. Following the establishment of technical working groups, the cities undertook initial resilience assessments using Preliminary and Health System Resilience Scorecards to support the strategic development processes at the local level. The emphasis of the Health Systems Disaster Resilience Scorecard Assessment is on facilitating multi-sectoral approaches to integrating health issues in disaster risk reduction/resilience planning at the city level.
The World Bank and GFDRR, as part of the COVID-19 response within the Initiative, provides technical assistance to selected countries in the region – Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan - to develop a more effective preparedness and disaster response by strengthening the social protection system and its flexibility to scale up in response to different types of shocks. Activities focus on defining a framework for scaling up the social protection system in case of a disaster or other emergencies affecting the livelihoods of large groups of people in the country. The work relies on the ongoing dialogue on social protection delivery systems in the countries as well as on ongoing World Bank projects under implementation. Country-specific outputs will include institutional and operational assessments of the social protection delivery systems and a proposed scaled-up road map to set up to address future disasters or other shocks for each country’s social assistance system. This technical assistance is linking social protection systems with disaster risk management systems in respective countries, providing capacity building for staff in the use of designed tools, improving understanding of the linkages between social protection and disaster response among key stakeholders.
As the COVID-19 crisis puts Central Asia’s resilience to the test, under the Initiative, leaders take this opportunity to re-evaluate the current governance and policies to improve the region’s ability to build stronger preparedness and response to such symmetrical shocks. The pandemic has not changed the fact that the region continues to face climate change, environmental challenges, and disaster risks of unprecedented urgency, but it certainly gave a lesson to prioritise the preparedness and prevention of the risks in the future.