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Urban Crowding and Climate Change: CHF On Why 21st Century Disasters Are Different

Published 03/21/2012 by Global Communities

Urban Crowding and Climate Change: CHF On Why 21st Century Disasters Are Different
This article originally appeared on
Two alarming 21st century trends have disaster relief organizations and insurance companies on edge. The world is becoming increasingly urbanized and at the same time, natural disasters are occurring more frequently than ever before. From yesterday’s earthquake in southern Mexico, to the recent tornadoes that ravaged the South, natural disasters are becoming a far more frequent occurrence.
Since the 1970s when the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters began keeping records of natural disasters, the number of reported events has more than quadrupled, from 78 reported in 1970 to 348 in 2004. Not only is the frequency of these events increasing, but more people are being affected than ever before. Urban populations are expected to surge to nearly 5 billion by 2030. The UN expects nearly all population growth over the next few decades to occur in the cities of middle and low income countries.
That’s why many are predicting that 21st century disasters will be exceptionally calamitous. Last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan was the most expensive natural disaster in history, costing an estimated $235 billion. Not only is the economic toll higher, but in cities with poor building codes, the human toll is considerable, as evidenced by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
In an interview with Forbes, Courtney Brown, director of humanitarian assistance for the aid organization CHF International (Cooperative Housing Foundation), discussed ways in which disaster response needs to change in the 21st century. “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” he writes. Instead, relief will increasingly need to be tailored to urban environments. Some key differences in the ways disaster response should be handled:
Assistance should be focused on neighborhoods, not households. In rural environments, helping individual households makes sense since they’re relatively autonomous and self-sufficient. In a major city – think New York or Tokyo – households are significantly more interconnected, relying on infrastructure and common resources to survive.
Urban livelihoods need to be protected. In cities, commerce is key. “We don’t grow our own food and we don’t make our own clothes. Our livelihood revolves around earning money that enables us to go out and buy those things.” Disasters are particularly hard on urban families because they’re cut off from their ability to earn at a time when food and supplies become more expensive. The focus needs to be on maintaining supply chains and distribution lines in the wake of a disaster.
Markets are key. People in cities rely on markets to buy the things they need, so relief should be distributed through those exchanges. Local businesses should be supported, and not bypassed, when distributing relief as they will be the drivers of the economic recovery.
CHF tested out this new approach with a pilot program in Haiti, after the earthquake. The Katye program (Haitian Creole for ‘neighborhood’) was implemented in Ravine Pintade a neighborhood in east Port-au-Prince. Focusing on the neighborhood, not individual households, the program put the town to work on rubble clearing and rebuilding. A training program for Caterpillar machinery was developed and cash for work programs were rolled out. “CHF looks at economic opportunities that support recovery. The idea is that you can promote economic recovery in the process of rebuilding a community.” says Courtney.
The uptick in costly disasters is causing municipal governments and aid organizations wake up and proactively prepare for these black swan events. CHF is helping cities with ‘risk-mapping’ to determine vulnerabilities and prepare accordingly. From retro-fitting buildings to improving building codes, the key to mitigating the human and economic toll of natural disasters begins with awareness and preparedness.
Read the full issue brief – The 21st Century Urban Disaster – here.