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In the field of disaster management, learning from previous experiences – also known as “lessons learned” – is considered critical. Wise managers should not allow themselves to fall into same mistakes that happened to others, especially when they are geographically close or operate within the same business environments. The same concept applies to countries that should learn from the mistakes of others to avoid suffering similar consequences of those who have experienced traumatic incidents. Current political and social conditions within the Middle East show that Arab countries barely learn from the mistakes of one another and seem to commit similar or even the same mistakes. This is often referred to as the “Domino Effect.”

Immediately after the fall of Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq in 2003, local and international media showed people demeaning and depreciating statues of the former Iraqi regime. Seventeen years later, many Iraqis sympathize with the former regime due to the handling of multiple crises and disasters since. The same situation has repeated in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

The value of learning from past experiences is not less important than any other phase in the disaster management cycle which includes preparation, mitigation, response, and recovery. Many examples can be presented in this context for clarification.

The case of ‘Storm Alexa’

In mid-December 2013, most of the Middle East, including Jordan, was hit by a snowstorm accompanied by heavy rainfall and winds. The snow continued to get stronger and stronger and went on longer than anyone expected. It snowed heavily for more than two days and greatly amassed all over Jordan, reaching 75 cm in Amman and 100 cm in some other areas. Jordan Weather Forecasting Agency’s spokesperson stated, “it was the fiercest storm to hit the Mideast in at least 30 years.” As a result, schools were shut, motorists were stuck, international flights were delayed and streets, especially those in remote areas, were completely blocked. The storm followed four days of torrential rain, which caused flooding in many areas across the country and resulted in huge losses and damage to infrastructure. Storm Alexa forced at least 400 families to evacuate their homes and move to government shelters overnight. Various locations experienced major discontinuities in their electricity supplies for more than three days. Many other service providers also failed to perform their duties during the storm. In general, normal life settings were paralyzed for a period of, at least, 10 days following the storm.

In the following years, two snowstorms of the same magnitude namely “Jana” and “Huda” have occurred. Surprisingly, and despite the fact that the two storms had almost the same magnitude of Alexa, impacts on society, infrastructure, and people were almost insignificant. This was mainly due to the fact that Jordanian local authorities, civil defense, police, medical services, transportation readiness and availability, as well as governorates learned from the lessons of storm Alexa and subsequently were more prepared to deal with future situations. The case of Alexa also enabled the local authorities to identify and assess the vulnerabilities and mistakes and turn them into capacities.  

The case of the Huang He flooding

A remarkable case which demonstrates the value of lessons learned is the case of the Huang He River in China. In 1933 the Huang He flooded. It swept through towns, villages and farmland. It killed thousands of people and left millions homeless. For hundreds of years, the people who lived along the Huang He tried to find ways to control the frequent river floods. However, the silt continued to cause the level of the riverbed to rise over the years. This disaster occurs annually and causes the same levels of damage each year. Finally, people decided to stop the river from overflowing by building up the banks to form high walls. Unfortunately, this also did not work but rather made the situation worse as many of them collapsed. After many years, people recognized (by learning from the previous experiences) that the best way to prepare for future floods is by planting trees and other vegetation along the river. Plants help to absorb rainfall and reduce soil erosion that washes silt into the river.

The case of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19)

Perhaps one of the most illustrative examples that can be introduced in this context is the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which results in thousands of people dead and other tens or even hundreds of thousands infected on a daily basis despite all of the presumed preparedness measures adopted by all nations. The COVID-19 pandemic challenged fundamentally all preparations, coping and response mechanisms of almost all countries around the world and notions like “the era of COVID-19” and “our lives will never be the same” have become very common. One of the key drivers for change in the current disaster management practices in this context is that of the rapidly changing situation across the entire globe as infections are mounting exponentially which mandates nations should share experiences and learning from failure.

Regret has never helped restore what has already been lost. A review of what was known to many as “Arab Spring” did not bring anything but tragedy to the Middle East due to the lack of foresight and learning from others’ mistakes. No matter how basic my neighbor’s experience was, there are always lessons to learn and opportunities to gain from disasters and crises. Human knowledge and ability to survive are accumulative experiences. Human history has witnessed infinite experiences where nations exchanged knowledge and wisdom. Subsequently, isn’t it the right time to recognize that falling into the same mistake is a choice? Isn’t it the time to recognize that all Arab countries share the same culture, so what proved to be harmful to one country could be harmful to others?

Lessons learned, as well as learning from failure, not only secures our present but also provides foresight and clearer projections on how our future can be shaped. Learning should include governments, businesses, as well as individuals. The learning process does not start or terminate at specific or predefined points, but rather represents an ongoing inquiry of information and new knowledge. The more we share this knowledge as humans, the more we become resilient in the face of modern disasters and crises.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ihab H. Sawalha

Ihab H. Sawalha is associate professor of risk management at the American University of Madaba in Jordan. He holds a Ph.D in business continuity management and strategic planning from the University of Huddersfield, UK; an MBA from Coventry University, UK; and a Bachelor of Science in electronics engineering from Princess Sumaya University for Technology, Jordan.

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