IFRC warns against unacceptable levels of urban risk

Published: 21 September 2010

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) today launched the World Disasters Report with a warning that 2.57 billion urban dwellers living in low and middle income nations are exposed to unacceptable levels of risk fuelled by rapid urbanization, poor local governance, population growth, poor health services and, in many instances, the rising tide of urban violence. Much of this urban population is also particularly exposed to climate change.

A key finding of the report is that between one-third and one-half of the population of most cities in low- and middle-income nations live in informal settlements and it is common in such cities for the local authorities to refuse to extend to them all the infrastructure and essential services that do so much to reduce disaster risk.

Existing measures of risk and vulnerability are criticized for undervaluing the impact of disaster losses on slum dwellers in favour of measuring the impact of disasters on large economies and major infrastructure where loss of life may be minimal but economic damage is considerable.

The report urges governments and NGOs to address the urban risk divide which exists between cities that are well-governed and well-resourced compared to those that struggle with a lack of resources, knowledge and will to ensure a well-functioning urban environment.

Bekele Geleta, IFRC Secretary General, said: “For the first time in human history more people live in towns and cities than in the countryside, but the world has not kept pace with this change. This is why more people live in slums or informal settlements than ever before and this will lead to more people being affected by urban disasters like the terrible earthquake which struck Haiti earlier this year.”

The report states that the root cause of why so many people are affected by urban disasters is that a billion people live in poor-quality homes on dangerous sites with no hazard-reducing infrastructure and no services. In any given year, over 50,000 people can die as a result of earthquakes and 100 million can be affected by floods and the worst-affected are most often vulnerable city dwellers.

“A very large deficit exists in the infrastructure and services that reduce disaster risk for much of the population in Latin America, Africa and Asia,” says Geleta. “We must bridge this urban risk divide or it will be further exposed in a very cruel way by climate change in the coming years.”

A recurring theme of this year’s report is that good urban governance is essential to ensuring people are empowered and engaged in the development of their urban environment and not marginalized and left exposed to disasters, climate change, violence and ill health.

David Satterthwaite, World Disasters Report lead writer and Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), said: “People living in well governed cities are among those who benefit from the world’s best quality of life and highest life expectancies. Generally, the more urbanized a nation, the stronger its economy, the higher the average life expectancy and the literacy rate, and the stronger the democracy, especially at local level.

“The crisis of urban poverty, rapidly growing informal settlements and growing numbers of urban disasters arises from the failure of governments to adapt their institutions to urbanization. It stems also in part from the failure of aid agencies to help them to do so – most aid agencies have inadequate or no urban policies and have long been reluctant to support urban development at a sufficient scale.”

The report finds that forcible eviction is a constant threat to the urban poor. Large-scale evictions by public authorities displace millions every year, sometimes for re-development or beautification projects, or simply to target and remove what they consider undesirable groups.

The World Disasters Report points out that zoning and planning controls often exclude a large part of the urban population from legal land markets and advocates that building standards should be applied in a way that is appropriate to the local context including affordability and resistance to extreme weather.

The location of cities will affect the types of climate hazards to which urban communities are exposed. Over half of 37 cities in Africa with more than 1 million residents are in the low-elevation coastal zone. A sea level rise of just 50 cm would lead to over 2 million people in Alexandria, Egypt, needing to abandon their homes. In the vulnerable east coast of Africa, potential costs of 10 per cent of GDP have been calculated to help vulnerable communities adapt to the consequences of climate change and the growing incidences of weather-related disasters.

For the extended version of the press release, please read below:

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) today launched its annual World Disasters Report with a stern warning that 2.57 billion urban dwellers living in low- and middle-income nations are vulnerable to unacceptable levels of risk fuelled by rapid urbanization, poor local governance, population growth, poor health services and, in many instances, the rising tide of urban violence. Much of this urban population is also particularly exposed to the consequences of climate change.

A key finding of the report is that between one-third and one-half of the population of most cities in low- and middle-income nations live in informal settlements, and it is common in such cities for the local authorities to refuse to extend to them all the infrastructure and essential services that do so much to reduce disaster risk.

Understanding urban

Existing measures of risk and vulnerability are criticized for undervaluing the impact of disaster losses on slum dwellers in favour of measuring the impact of disasters on large economies and major infrastructure where loss of life may be minimal but economic damage is considerable.

The report urges governments and NGOs to address the urban risk divide which exists between cities that are well-governed and well-resourced compared to those that struggle with a lack of resources, knowledge and will to ensure a well-functioning urban environment.

Bekele Geleta, IFRC Secretary General, said: “For the first time in human history more people live in towns and cities than in the countryside, but the world has not kept pace with this change. This is why more people live in slums or informal settlements than ever before, which will lead to more people being affected by urban disasters like the terrible earthquake which struck Haiti earlier this year.”

The report states that the root cause of why so many people are affected by urban disasters is because a billion people live in poor-quality homes on dangerous sites with no hazard-reducing infrastructure and no services. In any given year, over 50,000 people can die as a result of earthquakes and 100 million can be affected by floods, and the worst-affected are most often vulnerable city dwellers.

“There is a knowledge gap,” says Geleta. ”Official statistics do not capture the true cost that diasters have for poor households. It is difficult to put a price on what it means to a poor family when their humble home is washed away in a flood with all their worldly goods. Many will never recover from such a blow.

“A very large deficit exists in the infrastructure and services that reduce disaster risk for much of the population in Latin America, Africa and Asia. We must bridge this urban risk divide or it will be further exposed in a very cruel way by climate change in the coming years.”

Good governance and better data

A recurring theme of this year’s report is that good urban governance is essential to ensuring people are empowered and engaged in the development of their urban environment and not marginalized or left exposed to disasters, climate change, violence and ill health.

The report states that the 1 billion urban dwellers now living in overcrowded slums or settlements will rise to 1.4 billion by 2020. It points out that Africa, which is often considered predominantly rural, now has an urban population (412 million) larger than North America (286 million).

It also calls for better statistical information on how disasters have an impact on urban areas. At present, it is difficult to understand the number of urban disasters, the extent to which disaster has an impact on urban areas or how trends in urban disasters differ between global regions.

Global statistics are available through CRED (Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters) database, but it is often not possible to make an accurate distinction between the urban and rural affected or to get a breakdown of the statistics by urban district.

Considering communities

David Satterthwaite, World Disasters Report lead writer and Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), said: “The crisis of urban poverty, rapidly growing informal settlements and growing numbers of urban disasters arises from the failure of governments to adapt their institutions to urbanization. “It stems also in part from the failure of aid agencies to help them to do so – most aid agencies have inadequate or no urban policies and have long been reluctant to support urban development at a sufficient scale.

“People living in well-governed cities are among those who benefit from the world’s best quality of life and highest life expectancies. Generally, the more urbanized a nation, the stronger its economy, the higher the average life expectancy and the literacy rate, and the stronger the democracy, especially at local level.

“The housing, land and property rights of people who live in slums need to be respected and protected particularly in post-disaster situations. The strong emphasis of this year’s World Disasters Report is on supporting community-level initiatives – both to avoid disasters and to cope with them – but large development assistance agencies frequently do not know how to support community-level organizations. Indeed, often they never talk to them.”

The report points out that zoning and planning controls often exclude a large part of the urban population, and asserts that insecurity of tenure and fear of eviction is common among those who live in informal urban settlements that are vulnerable to natural disasters.

An examination of the CRED database indicates that regions of the world that are most urbanized tend to have fewer deaths from natural disasters, but higher economic losses as in the case of Europe, which has 72 per cent urban dwellers, and in 2007 experienced 65 disasters resulting in 1 per cent of deaths, but 27 per cent of the economic damage worldwide.

Only 1 per cent of households and businesses in low-income countries and 3 per cent in middle-income countries have catastrophe insurance, compared to 30 per cent in high-income nations.

Forcible eviction is a constant threat to poor urban communities. Large-scale evictions by public authorities displace millions every year, sometimes for re-development or beautification projects, or simply to target and remove what they consider undesirable groups. In Mumbai, India, up to 400,000 people were displaced by a slum-clearance drive in late 2004 and early 2005; whilst in Zimbabwe, 700,000 people were forced to vacate their homes in six weeks between May and June 2005. Most of these people ended up even more vulnerable than before.

Cities and climate change

The location of cities will affect the types of climate hazards to which they are exposed, but vulnerability is mitigated through the social and economic circumstances of the city and its residents. Low- and middle-income nations are particularly vulnerable to climate change even though they contribute least to the causes of it.

Over half of 37 cities in Africa with more than 1 million residents are in the low-elevation coastal zone. A sea level rise of just 50 cm would lead to over 2 million people in Alexandria, Egypt, needing to abandon their homes. In the vulnerable east coast of Africa, potential costs of 10 per cent of GDP have been calculated to help vulnerable communities adapt to the consequences of climate change and the growing incidences of weather-related disasters.

The World Disasters Report points out that zoning and planning controls often exclude a large part of the urban population from legal land markets and advocates that building standards should be applied in a way that is appropriate to the local context including affordability and resistance to extreme weather. Insecurity of tenure and fear of eviction is common among those who live in informal urban settlements vulnerable to natural disasters.

Urban violence

Countries with high levels of urban violence tend to suffer from very unequal income distribution patterns and this unequal access to economic opportunity is frequently cited as the main factor leading to urban violence. Income inequality in Africa and Latin America continues to be the highest in the world.

Many states with high levels of urban violence are also characterized by their inability to provide services and to uphold the rule of law; or to maintain an effective presence throughout their territory or to collect taxes. When the state fails to meet the citizens’ expectations, legitimacy is eroded. When legitimacy is very low, citizens may be reluctant to pay taxes and may condone or engage in anti-social, violent or criminal activity.

Urban health divide

The report also draws attention to the non-availability of health services in informal settlements, both for communicable diseases (for instance diarrhoeal diseases, acute respiratory infections and TB); and for non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, which kill 35 million a year and, on current trends, could be responsible for 75 per cent of all deaths within a decade.

In most developing countries, communicable diseases remain the main cause of ill health and premature death, especially for children, but the contribution of non-communicable diseases including chronic ‘lifestyle’ disease is increasing. In Kenya’s urban slums, much of the population not only has to contend with high levels of infectious disease, but also the increasing burden of non-communicable diseases with 17 per cent of people suffering from diabetes or hypertension and unable to get screening services or drugs.

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The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, with 189 member National Societies. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our work is guided by seven fundamental principles; humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. About this site & copyright