x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Planning for worst is prudent policy

The FNC deserves credit for calling for more - and more detailed - disaster planning.

Within minutes of yesterday's 8.6 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia's northern Aceh province, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued a "tsunami watch" for the entire Indian Ocean. The intent was not to cause panic, but to save lives. When a similar quake struck in 2004, hundreds of thousands perished because of the lack of local warning systems.

The UAE faces very different coastal concerns than countries along the so-called Pacific "ring of fire". But Gulf states need to be aware of a number of hazards. And as Federal National Council members reminded leaders this week, the UAE may not always as prepared as it should be.

Over six hours of questioning, FNC members grilled Environment Minister Rashid Ahmed bin Fahad on what went wrong last year when a diesel tanker sank off the coast of Umm Al Quwain. Dr bin Fahad faced a tough session, but the public-safety issues addressed are of the highest importance. An FNC report found that the ministry had no plans in place to respond to potentially devastating environmental disasters. For a nation dependent on the sea for potable water, commerce and fisheries, how could that be?

The FNC deserves credit for asking. Emergency planning is not always about saving lives directly, but lives - and livelihoods - are in jeopardy without plans for timely, funded and coordinated responses to disasters.

On worst-case scenarios of doom and gloom, the UAE gets high marks. For instance, Abu Dhabi is forging ahead with plans to harden the future Braka nuclear power station against attack. And foreign embassies have been ordered to draft evacuation plans in the event of a regional war. But when it comes to more prosaic threats - like an oil spill in the Gulf - the UAE has some catching up to do.

There are exceptions. Health Authority - Abu Dhabi last year issued detailed plans on command, control and coordination across hospitals in the event of a massive health disaster. This effort should be expanded across agencies, and the National Emergency and Crisis Management Authority must work to forge coordination plans.

This level of preparation might sometimes seem onerous, but the FNC is right to press the issue. It is not just the Environment Ministry that needs to be questioned about the national strategy to mitigate a disaster. The earthquake yesterday, even far away, reminds us of the urgency.