Cities: the future of disasters

26/04/2013 at 2:34 pm 1 comment


One of the major events taking place during the 2013 Irish EU Presidency was a high level international meeting on urban poverty.

Many Dóchas members supported this meeting in the realisation that urbanisation is posing major challenges for everyone interested in sustainable development. Cities are where people are concentrated and where some of the greatest challenges about sustainability, equality, employment and infrastructure can be found.

(See our list of resources about Cities, Sustainability and Poverty).

The 21st century disaster will be an urban one.

In 2008 the world marked the moment in history where more people lived in urban centers than outside of them. “Drawn to economic, educational, and social opportunities, the migration towards cities is undeniable and irreversible.”

At the same time, people doing research into these matters are showing us that the number of disasters – and the number of people affected by those disasters – is on the rise. The number of reported natural disasters has risen from 78 in 1970 to 348 in 2004. (Check the stats for yourself in this interactive database)

In the 19th and 20th centuries, natural disasters disproportionately affected rural areas, and aid agencies developed the tools and skills to respond to them as well as they could. But in the 21st century, with people concentrated in urban centers and our vulnerability to disasters increasing, the bulk of the damage done by floods, earthquakes and tsunamis is more likely to affect urban areas.

Lessons for the future

“The rising costs and economic impact of urban disasters, while concerning, are leading to some positive outcomes. The staggering costs of rebuilding and the economic losses associated with urban disasters are leading many governments to focus additional resources on disaster preparedness and mitigation activities,” says Courtney Brown in this article.

His colleague David Weiss said:

“The 20th century image of relief agencies driving trucks through dusty landscapes and throwing branded sacks of food and water to starving families will gradually fade from our television screens and disappear from our newspapers. In the urban disaster, food and water will come from proximate, less affected markets, as the urban economy shifts and adjusts to the shock of the disaster and vendors find new suppliers. The agro-pastoralist with his starving livestock will be seen less frequently; the impacted citizen may be a plumber, a taxi driver or a day-laborer. And flooded rivers will not destroy just farmland; we will see images of drowned slums and residents paddling boats between roofs and floating cars.”

A recent report by the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee found ten lessons for responding to urban disasters:

  1. Work with and through municipalities wherever possible.
  2. Find and use neighbourhood networks and capacities.
  3. Work with the local private sector and don’t compete unfairly.
  4. Focus on long term homes, not short term shelter.
  5. Keep people in or close to their neighbourhoods, if safe.
  6. Assume skills and resources can be found locally.
  7. Assume fast changing environments and have an exit strategy.
  8. Use cash to stimulate markets.
  9. Use the right tools for working with complex sets of stakeholders.
  10. Prepare now for the next big urban disaster.

Also read:



Entry filed under: NGOs. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Aid to poor countries falls further European NGOs set out their vision of a new approach to tackling poverty

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