A development organization says the 21st Century has brought an increase in urban disasters. It’s calling for a new approach to relief efforts as the world’s urban centers continue to grow.
CHF International says there are “two distinct but intertwined trends” underway. One is urbanization. In 2008, urban populations outnumbered rural populations for the first time. The second trend, it says, is an increasing number of disasters and a growing number of people affected by them. It cites recent the tsunami in Japan, floods in Bangkok, and the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand.
Courtney Brown is CHF International’s director of humanitarian assistance. He’s also the author of the briefing paper The 21st Century Urban Disaster.
“There are going to be more people in the world and those people are going to concentrate in urban areas. And there are going to be more disasters in the world. Just since 1970 we’ve had roughly a 400 percent increase in the number of disasters that are being reported on an annual basis. Now granted some of that is due to improved surveillance and improved reporting. But a big part of that is there’s just simply more disasters that are happening now. Climate change is driving a lot of that,” he said.
What might happen
Brown said the rate of urbanization is increasing around the world, but it’s happening faster in some areas than others.
“It is increasing most rapidly in developing countries – developing countries in Asia and in Africa. So while Africa hasn’t had a big, big urban disaster in very recent memory, the writing is on the wall that even for Africa what we’re seeing taking place in other parts of the world is on the horizon for the African continent. And so that’s why what we’re talking about now remains very relevant and pertinent in the African context,” he said.
For the past 20 years, he said, there have been three potential disasters that have kept humanitarian workers worrying when they might happen. One has come to pass.
“The first one was a big earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti because all the scenarios that were being run were indicating that that was going to be bad. The second thing is a big earthquake in Tokyo, Japan. And the third event is a big earthquake in Kathmandu,” said Brown.
There are about one million people in Nepal’s largest urban center. Brown says experts believe Kathmandu is 70 years overdue for a major earthquake.
Rural vs. urban
He added many disaster relief plans and operations are based on assumptions related to rural areas.
“Those assumptions are that a family is living in a one unit house on a plot of land that it either owns or can work. The assumption about the livelihood is that rural families will produce as much as they purchase if not more. And so those assumptions don’t always hold in the urban environment,” he said.
Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, CHF International received a USAID grant to try something different in disaster relief. It’s called the Katye project. Katye is Creole for neighborhood and was centered in the Ravine Pintade neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. It’s estimated two-thirds of the one thousand families there were left homeless.
Brown said, “Katye is unique and unique in the sense that it chose to target at the neighborhood level not at the household level. And the reason for that is because CHF recognized that households in a neighborhood are much more interlinked than outside of urban context. Their livelihoods are interlinked. You have dwellings where multiple families live in them. Picture an apartment complex.”
The idea was not simply to rebuild the neighborhood after the earthquake, but make it better and safer. Streets were made wider. Two story earthquake resistant houses were constructed. Building up instead of out made the neighborhood less congested.
The model led to other ideas to reduce the effects of any future disasters. These include tougher building codes, not building in flood plains, flood retention walls, non-construction zones along shorelines. It’s known as DRR, disaster risk reduction.
Brown said the time is right to implement these ideas.
“We’re coming up on the one year anniversary (3/11) of the Japan Sendai earthquake/ tsunami / nuclear event. And so we wanted the release of this paper to sort of coincide with the remembrance of the events that happened a year ago,” he said.
The Japanese disaster recovery has cost $235 billion so far. It’s called the most expensive natural disaster in history.
The CHF International paper says disasters are inevitable and responding is a daunting task. But says investing in disaster risk reduction can mitigate the impact when they do occur.