Avoiding the urbanization of disasters

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altThe International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has just published the World Disasters Report 2010: Focus on Urban Risk. This article is a summary of chapter 1, which was written by David Satterthwaite, Senior Fellow, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). We acknowledge IFRC for their agreement in allowing us to disseminate the chapter.The complete report can be consulted here.

The early part of 2010 saw how an 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit Chile, a country which had just joined the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development club of wealthier nations, and caused widespread damage to property but the death toll was counted in hundreds. It followed an earthquake of slightly lesser magnitude in January which struck Port-au-Prince, the capital of the region’s poorest country, Haiti, and resulted in more than 200,000 deaths according to best estimates and left more than 1 million people homeless. While the concentration of people in urban centres can greatly reduce or increase disaster impacts, the disparity in the impact of these two earthquakes is in part explained by the differences in disaster preparedness and the quality of housing, infrastructure and services.

The United Nations Population Division’s projections suggest that almost all the world’s population growth in the next few decades will be in urban areas in low and middle-income nations. Much of this population growth is currently in informal settlements where housing conditions are generally very poor and even the most rudimentary protective infrastructure is often lacking. A high proportion of this urban growth is in cities at risk from the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and storm surges that climate change is bringing or is likely to bring.

But urban areas need separate consideration because their very character – the concentration of population, homes and other buildings, transport infrastructure and industry – presents both problems and opportunities for disaster risk reduction and humanitarian assistance.
There are also more market pressures in urban areas, especially in large or successful cities where low-income groups struggle to find accommodation and health services they can afford and are at risk from price rises or falling incomes. Thus, there is a need for finance if households are to protect themselves.

Urban populations also need some consideration simply for their scale:

  • By 2010, there were 2.5 billion urban dwellers in low- and middle-income
    nations; this is roughly the same as the world’s total population in 1950.
  • Africa is usually considered to be predominantly rural but its urban population  now much larger than that of North America.
  • Most of the world’s largest cities are in low- and middle-income nations; this is unprecedented historically as most large cities have been in the wealthiest nations.

Although precise numbers are lacking, an overall view of UN estimates suggests that around 1.000 million urban dwellers live in poor-quality, overcrowded housing in slums or informal settlements with this rising to 1.4 billion by 2020 unless governments and international agencies become far more successful in supporting housing improvements for low-income groups.

The links between urban poverty and disaster risk are likely to be increased by climate change. Tens of millions of urban dwellers face, or will soon face, life-threatening risks from the increased intensity of storms, flooding and heat waves that climate change is bringing, with associated threats to their livelihoods, their asset bases, environmental quality and future prosperity. Here, it is largely those people and nations that have contributed least to global warming which face the greatest risks.

Being vulnerable should not generate disaster risk. So why is it that, in most nations and urban centres, deaths, injuries and loss of homes from disasters are greater among vulnerable groups? If risks are removed – for instance, the installation of decent drains that cope with heavy rainfall – vulnerability to those risks is no longer a problem.

Vulnerability is not the same as lack of income but lack of income may also mean lack of access to safe housing with good provision for water and sanitation, healthcare, education and capacity to recover.

If national and international databases on disasters become more precise and comprehensive as to the impact on individual cities, it is certain that the observed trends would reinforce the view that disaster risk increases in badly governed cities and decreases in well-governed cities. It would show that cities with rapid population growth and ensuing economic growth introduce measures to reduce disaster risk, while cities with slow population growth or even population decline still have high disaster risk as they have fewer resources to invest in reducing disaster risk.

Observed trends would also show that many city governments increase disaster risk as they ignore the population living in informal settlements or as they bulldoze these settlements, destroying the homes, assets and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people but providing no alternatives.
Greater consideration is needed of the role that housing plays in urban areas for low income groups such as the hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers rendered homeless by the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The value and importance of housing to such groups far exceeds its monetary value. What seems to outsiders to be no more than a shack built mostly of temporary materials is actually the home with all its key attributes for family and social life, privacy and safety, and is the primary defence for those living there against most environmental health risks.

Urban areas present two very specific challenges for housing. The first is that in low and middle-income nations, land prices for housing are usually much higher than in rural areas. There are also often far more official rules and regulations governing the acquisition and use of land for housing, which usually restricts land available and further increases its price. This is why so much of the urban population in low- and middle-income nations lives on land that is illegally occupied or illegally subdivided. High land prices also put pressure on local municipalities to open high-risk areas for construction. The second challenge is that housing is not only ‘the home’ but also the ‘access to income’ and ‘access to services’, and for those with limited incomes, the house’s location in relation to where its occupants work and children can go to school is as important, or more important, than the quality of the house and the security of the tenure.

To relocate those made homeless by a disaster to ‘safe’ places far from where they have income-earning opportunities simply compounds still further the disaster’s impact and most will not stay there. It also has great relevance for any initiative to improve housing conditions because most households in an informal settlement are far better served by in-situ upgrading than by moving them to new housing in a new – almost always worse. Households need a choice: some may wish to leave owing to the risks and trauma to their families, while others prefer to remain in, or return to, the areas where they had previously made their homes. And it should not be only those with proof of land and housing ownership that get help for rebuilding.

A final complication for disaster response is that the very poor quality of so much housing prior to the disaster, including inadequate infrastructure and the fact that it was ‘illegal’, makes reconstruction very difficult. There is rarely a map of the settlement showing plots and plot boundaries. There is often little infrastructure to repair.

The sites are frequently difficult or impossible to reach with trucks or any construction equipment as there are no paved roads and they are often built on challenging terrain.

The strong emphasis of this year’s World Disasters Report is on supporting community-level initiatives because in almost all low-income and most middle-income nations, this is the only way to ensure that the needs and priorities of those most at risk from disaster are addressed. But large development assistance agencies frequently do not know how to support community level organizations – indeed, often they never talk to them; they were set up to channel large sums to national governments, not to support the myriad community and local government initiatives that can reduce disaster risk and that need modest external support.

Where city and municipal governments have sufficient capacity, focus on their low income households and have good relations with their citizens, the possibilities for disaster risk reduction are greatly enhanced. These cities and municipalities provide us with the evidence that an urbanizing world need not ‘urbanize’ disaster risks. Most disaster risk reduction is within their conventional urban management roles – for instance, in land-use management, in strategic urban planning and in setting and enforcing regulations for land use, buildings and infrastructure. So it is the competence and capacity of city and municipal governments to work with and support their low income populations that defines whether urbanization is associated with disaster risk.
A framework of support from higher levels of government and international agencies is required. Learning networks need to be nurtured for city authorities, urban professionals and citizen groups.

Overall, this needs a sea-change in the preparedness and capacity of most bilateral aid agencies to work in urban areas with urban organizations and local authorities.

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