As the world becomes more urban, and climate change picks up pace, natural disasters remain one of the greatest threats to human health and stability.
Cities are becoming larger, more humans on the planet are becoming urban, and city leaders are turning their attention toward the importance of preparedness and response to natural disasters.
It is anticipated that the majority of the world’s population growth in the next several decades will be in the cities of low and middle-income countries. Many of these cities are particularly vulnerable to flooding and extreme weather, located in low-lying coastal zones. Within these cities, slum settlements are often built on the most vulnerable lands, prone to landslides, or abutting waterways in flood zones.
Many natural disasters, particularly storms and hurricanes, are thought to be increasing in severity and frequency—in part due to climate change. Geophysical disasters such as earthquakes are having a greater effect on humans because more people live near fault lines. There were three times as many natural disasters in the 2000s than there were in the 1980s, according to researchers. On average, 218 million people per year were affected by natural disasters between 1994 and 2013. While exact costs are difficult to predict for the future, given the sporadic nature of disasters, the trend is clearly upward.
Before the Alarms Sound
Long before the alarms sound, disaster preparedness begins with stepping back and taking stock. Today’s rapidly expanding cities start their response to natural disasters with an assessment of the risks. Individual cities vary in their approaches to disaster preparedness according to their particular risks.
Community surveys are conducted, mapping geographic vulnerability and identifying where the most vulnerable populations are located. Where are the flood zones, and how many people live there? Where do the poor, the elderly and the homeless live? Overlaid on this information comes an assessment of the resources a city has at hand to respond, and the vulnerabilities of those resources. Where are the hospitals, and are their buildings sound? Where are the water supplies, and how is the power grid laid out?
Many organizations, from the World Bank and international NGOs to slum dweller organizations, have been partnering with city leaders to create these risk assessments. New mapping techniques and technologies are being used to create spatial data of cities’ risks, upon which plans for improved disaster response infrastructure can be built.
After an assessment of the risks has been laid out, city leaders then decide on effective ways to mitigate the effects of a future disaster, putting mechanisms in place before disaster strikes to reduce the effect of the disaster. Like a bicycle helmet or child’s car seat, these are set in place to be present and ready at all times, and are aimed at making the infrastructure of the city less vulnerable and more resilient.
One example of this is the implementation of building codes in earthquake-prone areas. Engineers have devised architectural components that make buildings more sound and less likely to collapse in an earthquake—methods like base isolation or tuned mass dampers.
In the aftermath of disasters, retrospective awareness of how inadequate implementation of these methods can result in tremendous casualties may receive worldwide criticism, as was the case in China after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
In Seattle, recent media attention has increased public awareness of the Cascadia subduction zone off the Pacific coast which, according to geologists, has caused infrequent, but devastating earthquakes in centuries past. Many experts predict that the Pacific Northwest is due for another large earthquake that could potentially reach above 9.0 on the Richter scale, costing thousands of lives, and this likelihood has provided further motivation for the city to upgrade its buildings, which has thus far been happening at a snail’s pace.
Early warning systems are another mitigation method that can help the local population be more resilient to natural disasters. Similar to tornado warning sirens in the American Midwest, early warning systems for tsunamis have been developed in cities around the Indian Ocean after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami, which killed over 230,000 people. International cooperation has made this possible, where detection of an earthquake on the ocean floor can lead to tsunami warnings for coastal communities within a matter of minutes. The development of the Indian Ocean tsunami warning system cost about $19 million, and recent responses to earthquakes in the Indian Ocean have proven the system to be working effectively.
With an understanding of geographic vulnerability to forces like flooding and landslides, urban planning can also be used to reduce the human impact of disasters by discouraging settlement on high-risk lands, using them as parks or watersheds instead.
This can be politically fraught, however, in cities where many of these areas are already densely settled as slums, which tend to grow on undeveloped land, or areas that are otherwise less appealing to residential development. The process of either relocating residents of slums, or building better infrastructure in these areas risks displacing these already-vulnerable people. Additionally, the breaking up of social networks many counteract the benefits that arise from giving slum residents the opportunity to live in safer, but more distant neighborhoods.
No matter what a city can do to prepare, however, when disaster occurs, there is often significant damage and loss of life. Though the media often focuses on international assistance, almost all of the initial response for the first few days comes from local responders. Assessments of the damage, searching for survivors, establishing temporary shelter, food and water for displaced people—all of these are at least initially set up by local and regional first responders.
Experts in humanitarian assistance have been developing methods to increase the capacity of local level responders. Organizations such as Humanitarian Open Street Map use crowdsourced maps to determine where damage has occurred, where needs are and where incoming resources are being established. Creating order out of chaos is often the first step in the response, and new mobile technologies and social media are making this easier.
If local capacity for response is overwhelmed, the international humanitarian system mobilizes into action. In actuality, many international NGOs have long-term programs and an established presence in many cities where disasters happen frequently, but these operations are ramped up and new organizations flood into the area.
All of this attention can be problematic in itself. As humanitarian response has become a multi-billion dollar industry, organizations compete for influence and photo ops, and the influx of humanitarian aid can disrupt local markets or local capacity, or be diverted by combatants in armed conflicts. The most prominent example of this is food aid. When large amounts of food are introduced into a local market, the price of food goes down to the point that local producers and farmers are unable to maintain their livelihoods.
Recognizing the negative effects of such competition, leading humanitarian agencies have devised standards for humanitarian response, in an attempt to ensure some quality control. The original standards, however, were more applicable to refugee camps created in rural areas for large displaced populations. The constraints of urban infrastructure and the scale of urban populations have led some in the international community to reassess the current standards, and start the process for devising new standards more applicable to urban settings.
In addition to quality control, humanitarian organizations have devised the cluster system, by which agencies focus on particular areas of need—food, education, health—to avoid overlap and encourage better cooperation. Under the direction of the United Nations (UN), the cluster system divides the response tasks into different areas and assigns organization to focus on particular areas and defer to a lead organization for each area.
While a noble goal, in actual practice there is still significant disarray in response and cooperation, not only between international organizations, but also between international and local actors. After the 2009 earthquake in Haiti, over 900 organizations were involved in the relief efforts, most of which were small and inexperienced in large-scale disasters and, therefore, did not engage much with coordination efforts. Leaders within the UN criticized the slow progress on implementation of the cluster system.
After the Dust Settles
After the dust settles, the initial response phase transitions into longer-term recovery. There is a cyclic quality to disaster response in cities with recurrent disasters, whereby recovery aims to ramp up the assessment of risk, and implement more mitigation for the next disaster. With the influx of money, attention and energy, cities often have an opportunity after natural disasters to improve the infrastructure that was destroyed and rebuild it better.
But any attempt at radial change in the wake of a disaster is sure to have supporters and detractors. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the city’s public school system underwent a severe overhaul. On one hand, students from the new schools—almost universally charter schools—have improved test scores and educational outcomes. On the other, many families have criticized the closure of historic neighborhood schools, difficulties in navigating the system and failures in providing for students with disabilities.
Local organizations working in the area long-term may also incorporate disaster planning and response into their mission. The health NGO Partners in Health has been working in Haiti since the 1980s. After the 2009 earthquake, they expanded their health clinics to serve people displaced in the settlement camps around Port-au-Prince, and scaled up their health care delivery, particularly for rehabilitation medicine and mental health services.
They built a new tertiary care hospital, which is in part an extension of their preexisting model of developing health care systems. But this also became a teaching hospital where medical and nursing trainees could sharpen their skills and develop as specialists—a need that was sharply felt after so many health care providers were killed or displaced by the earthquake.
As the people of the world become even more urban, and as climate change picks up pace, the impact of natural disasters on cities around the world remain some of the greatest threats to human health and stability. But as the potential for destruction grows, and inevitable future disasters loom, opportunities and ideas for better preparation, response and understanding are also developing at a rapid pace.
Ingenuity comes from human interconnectedness, and our urbanizing world presents many opportunities for the world’s city dwellers to devise more and better ideas to protect themselves and their neighbors from the inevitable catastrophes to come.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.