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FEATURE STORY December 6, 2019

Three Decades Since Spitak, Disaster Resilience Remains a Priority for Armenia


A boy stands behind a damaged building in Spitak, Armenia. Razmik Zackaryan (Winner, Resilient Armenia Photo Contest)

How the Spitak Earthquake helped spur development of disaster risk management in Armenia

On December 7, 1988, a fault line ruptured without warning just south of the Caucasus Mountains. The resulting magnitude 6.8 seismic wave traveled at thousands of miles per hour from the earthquake’s epicenter, affecting the nearby cities of Spitak, Gyumri, and Vanadzor, and a number of smaller outlying villages, while shaking up almost the entire country.

The aftermath of this event, known as the Spitak Earthquake, resulted in the highest number of earthquake-related fatalities in the world that decade. The subsequent international relief effort would see a renewed focus on disaster resilience intervention in Armenia, and indeed across the Europe and Central Asia region.

The scale of the devastation following the Spitak Earthquake was significant. More than 25,000 people lost their lives, and up to 130,000 others were injured. In addition, the disaster impacted much of Armenia’s social and economic infrastructure, leaving the country facing an estimated  $15-20 billion in economic losses.


The impact of the 1988 Spitak Earthquake. Image credit: World Bank

In the three decades since Spitak, Armenia has taken some important steps toward disaster resilience. Among these were the creation, in 1991, of the country’s first Emergency Management Administration and the National Service for Seismic Protection. Subsequently, Armenia formalized its membership in the International Civil Defense Organization and created a rapid response rescue team.

A globally significant development in the years following the Spitak Earthquake was a United Nations-led mechanism established to immediately deploy rescue teams to disaster sites - a system that has since serviced hundreds of disasters and saved thousands of lives all over the world.

A regional rapid response team trains in Armenia. Image credit: Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Republic of Armenia

Over the last decade, the government of Armenia has reinforced its commitment to building disaster resilience. Initiatives include establishing national platforms to better understand and manage climate and disaster risks, working to expand investments in resilient infrastructure, and mainstreaming disaster risk management policies and regulations across government institutions. In addition, the seismic safety of schools has become a national priority.

With assistance from the World Bank and other development partners, the Government of Armenia adopted a National Disaster Risk Management System and Strategy in 2017, both of which are aligned with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction - the global framework to strengthen disaster resilience - and with the Sustainable Development Goals. Together, these frameworks provide the government with new, forward-looking targets for social, physical, and economic resilience by 2030.

Thanks to enhanced risk information and comprehensive preparedness measures, Armenia significantly improved its seismic building codes. The country also has the legal framework in place to facilitate a quick and effective emergency response, and sends experts abroad to share its experience.

To help the Armenian government better understand the fiscal implications of disaster impacts, the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery have provided guidance on disaster risk finance, which takes stock of existing instruments used to finance disaster response in Armenia, and outlines policy options for disaster risk financing and insurance.

"Though this tragedy is now more than three decades past, its legacy can still be felt throughout the region," says Sebastian Molineus, World Bank Regional Director for the South Caucasus. "We at the World Bank Group are proud to support Armenia as it continues to deepen its climate and disaster resilience, and it is our hope that the ongoing efforts undertaken by the government, local communities, and international partners will ensure a safer and more prosperous future for all Armenians."

Although challenges remain, Armenia is taking important strides toward building disaster resilience, through preparedness strategies and integrating its experience in disaster risk management. More than thirty years since the Spitak Earthquake, this tragedy remains a powerful reminder of the need to ensure the safety of all Armenians.