Africa Asia Middle East Français Português Subscribe IRIN Site Map
Global HIV/AIDS news and analysis
Advanced search
 Wednesday 03 October 2007
Weekly reports 
In-Depth reports 
Country profiles 
Fact files 
Really Simple Syndication Feeds 
About PlusNews 
Contact PlusNews 
Print report
GLOBAL: Drowning in urban disaster

Photo: Edward Parsons/IRIN
Pakistan was struck by an earthquake in 2005, killing thousands of people and leaving millions homeless in the middle of winter.
NAIROBI, 18 September 2007 (IRIN In-Depth) - (September 2007) It took two hours for the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, to leak 27 tonnes of poisonous methyl isocyanate into the early morning air of 3 December 1984. Three thousand largely poor residents living and working in the shadow of the pesticide plant were killed instantly; twice this number would eventually die. Of an estimated 500,000 exposed to the gas, 50,000 suffered from acute symptoms such as intestinal bleeding and spontaneous abortions. Chronic health complications exist to this day.

It took two days of torrential rain in December 1999 for the coastal hillsides of Vargas, Venezuela, to slide into the Caribbean Sea. Thirty thousand largely poor residents living in shantytowns and informal shacks perched on the cliff-sides were entombed by cascading walls of mud and rock. Seventy thousand people were displaced. Only 1,000 bodies were ever recovered.

The Bhopal and Vargas tragedies provide stark examples of how cities across the developing world, and particularly the urban poor living and working within these cities, are more likely to be affected by increasingly unnatural disasters. The list includes earthquakes, heat waves, epidemics, landslides, tidal surges and tsunamis, wildfires, pyroclastic flows, windstorms (tornados, typhoons or hurricanes), floods, chemical spills and transport accidents. During the last quarter-century alone, 98 percent of the people injured or affected by natural disasters were living in 112 countries classified as low income or low-middle income, according to the UN’s 2007 State of the World Report.

The amount of death, destruction and economic loss that disasters inflict on urban centres is unsurprising. Cities, and especially megacities (with populations over 10 million), concentrate large populations in relatively small areas. Though traditionally industrialised nations have been home to the world’s largest cities, this trend has reversed over the last quarter-century. According to the World Bank, 76 percent of all cities with more than one million inhabitants will be in the developing world by the 2025.

These cities are often located on fault lines, in volcanic shadows, or in what geographers call Low Elevation Coast Zones (LECZ). An April 2007 article in the peer-reviewed journal, Environment and Urbanization, showed for the first time that while the LECZ constitute only 2 percent of the Earth’s land mass, they contain 10 percent of its population and have a higher rate of urbanisation (60 percent) than the rest of the world (just below 50 percent).

A higher share of developing country populations live within the LECZ, making them vulnerable not only because of their proximity to hazards such as rising sea levels and storm-induced flooding, but because, unlike the majority of urban populations in developed countries, they have less capacity to move away from, adapt to, or mitigate the effects of disasters.

But if size and location were the only factors that made a city vulnerable, Los Angeles, London and Tokyo could be regarded as veritable death traps. To understand the humanitarian impact of natural disasters on the urban poor, we need to examine not only how big a city is, but how it grew; not only a city’s geographic vulnerabilities, but how these vulnerabilities are being addressed by local and national governments; and, more fundamentally, we must define what we really mean by the term disaster.

Defining Disaster

Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
Due to climate change, more cities are experiencing flooding, such as Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. Slum dwellers are particularly vulnerable to the increase in natural disasters as they do not have the infrastructure to cope with higher rates of rainfall, nor adequate housing to deal with flooding. In addition, informal housing is most often constructed on floodplains or other risk-prone areas
The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, defines disasters as situations or events in which 10 or more people are killed, or 100 or more people are affected. CRED divides disasters into two broad categories: natural and technological. Natural disasters can be hydrological (landslides caused by too much water, or famine caused by too little water), or geophysical (a tsunami that results from an earthquake, or the pyroclastic flow of a volcanic eruption).

Technological disasters come in the industrial variety (chemical spills, fires, ruptured levees), or the transport variety (sinking ferries, colliding trains).  Though the CRED disaster database is an invaluable catalogue of the socio-economic and public health impacts of disasters, it provides only a partial picture of the risks faced by urban slum dwellers.

Specialists have begun questioning how disasters are defined. As Andre Yitambe of the Disaster Management Program at Kenyatta University, Nairobi, pointed out: “In Kenya you have about 10 people a day dying from road accidents, when you multiply this by 30 you have about 300 people dying each month; and yet no one looks at this continued loss of life as a ‘disaster’.”

What is true of the roadways in Africa is equally true of the coastal areas in Asia. Though the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami accounted for about 90 percent of that year’s natural disaster death toll, the 2.4 million people affected by the tsunami was relatively small in comparison to the 110 million people affected by flooding in Bangladesh, India and China that year, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) 2005 World Disasters Report.

For the urban poor, an earthquake or a hurricane is not a disaster, but a catalyst for disaster. The catalyst exposes poor infrastructure, substandard housing, haphazard city planning, and often non-existent response measures. The greater the vulnerability of the urban population, the less forceful the initial event needs to be to trigger a disaster.

The 2003 earthquake that reduced the historic city of Bam in Iran to rubble and killed more than 26,000 people almost instantly registered 6.6 on the Richter scale. Similarly, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake in Guatemala in 1976 resulted in 22,780 fatalities, while the 7.1 magnitude quake that shook San Francisco in 1989 resulted in 63 deaths.

But it would be wrong to equate a country’s gross national product with its vulnerability to disaster. Many cities in the developing world have instituted response and mitigation measures by first assessing where, how, and for whom risk was accumulating in urban environments.

Calculating urban risk

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, frequent flooding has led to houses being built on stilts to accommodate huge increases in the water level
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, frequent flooding has led to houses being built on stilts to accommodate huge increases in the water level
For a rural family of four pushed city-ward by the loss of farm land due to desertification, drought or a combination of the two, risk begins accumulating the minute they arrive in the city. In claustrophobic urban environments available land is most often found on cliff sides, floodplains, near industrial zones and hazardous industries. In many cases disasters have already affected these areas and in many cases they will strike again. This is why the land is available and why a family will ‘settle’ here.

Once settled, it is difficult for this family to relocate. “Their homes, their assets, their culture are so tied up in their city that groups like this don’t have a huge amount of capacity to adapt,” says David Satterthwaite, senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). “Of course they will learn to cope better, and they will use their social networks and their limited income, but as extreme weather events get more intense and more frequent, this will very quickly erode their coping capacity.”

In addition to physical instability, many of these settlements are considered illegal, and are therefore not included in official urban planning. Nor are they included in disaster preparedness planning; the geographic and social complexity of slums makes mapping the effects of disasters - and identifying the populations at greatest risk - a task that many city governments in developing countries have neither the capacity nor funding to initiate.

Though an increasing number of slum and squatter communities are forming influential federations, most informal communities lack the economic and political leverage necessary to pressure governments to upgrade infrastructure and create disaster management plans. These plans will not prevent an earthquake or hurricane, but they have been shown to reduce the loss of life and property damage, and lessen the shock to the economy as a whole.

In economic terms, the urban poor are less able to cope with disaster. For instance, while the total loss to large-scale industry as a result of a flood in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1998 was US$30 million, the loss to small and medium industry – where most of the urban poor are employed - was $36 million. Because of this flood, 27.4 percent of the slum dwelling population was left unemployed. Moreover, slum and squatter residents almost universally lack any form of property or life insurance, and efforts to provide micro-insurance to these communities have thus far met with mixed results.

The urban poor are also at an indirect risk when disasters strike rural areas. When a disaster -be it slow-onset desertification, a seasonal drought and the resulting famine, or flash flooding - strikes a rural area, these communities are often ‘pushed’ into cities. This push makes competition for resources, land, and jobs in urban areas all the more fierce.

Finally, many developing countries lack the medical infrastructure necessary to deal with large numbers of injured patients, with the result being that in the 1990s disasters killed nearly seven times more people in developing countries than in members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

In this environment a grim mathematical equation is manifest: a higher number of hazards is multiplied by increased vulnerability (the erosion of coping mechanisms), from which infrastructure, emergency planning and overall efforts at disaster mitigation and response are subtracted. All of which equals a high (and complex) level of risk to urban poor communities.

A Growing Death Toll

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Children in camps are also vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters but are far more likely to receive food aid than the urban poor. Here, children are hunting for grain in the sand in a camp for displaced people in northern Uganda. Their urban counterparts are left to beg on the streets, seek scraps in piles of rubbish to sell, do petty jobs, or even prostitute themselves to make a living.

If the present is disheartening, the future is frightening. Though the rate of urban-to-rural migration in the developing world is slowing, already vulnerable cities will become larger, more dense and more vulnerable over the next half-century. Between 2000 and 2030, Asia’s urban population will increase from 1.36 billion to 2.64 billion. Over the same time period, Africa’s urban population will more than double from 294 million to 742 million, and Latin America and the Caribbean’s will grow from 394 million to 609 million, according to the UN Population Fund’s (UNFPA) State of the World Population Report for 2007.

“The prospects for the next 20 or 30 years are dire,” says the IIED’s Satterthwaite. “Unless governments act - and act very urgently - on infrastructure deficits, on the lack of capacity for disaster response, on the lack of emergency responses to disasters, we will see what we’ve see in the last 20 years: a growing death toll and growing economic losses.”

As in almost all aspects of urban development, good and accountable governance are seen as the sine qua non of mitigating the effects of disasters on urban populations. “Most of the constraints are political and basically anti-poor people constraints,” Satterthwaite says. These constraints include the refusal of governments to work in poorer settlements, or make land available to poorer groups so that they do not have to settle on floodplains or steep slopes.

There are many theories why disaster planning has fallen through the cracks of urban development initiatives.  One is that it occupies a development grey zone, or blind spot: urban development specialists see health, education and livelihood issues as within their remit, while disaster specialists focus on the health and livelihood impacts from large-scale disasters.

Ben Wisner, vice chair of the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative, pointed out another crack in the urban risk reduction framework. Municipal governments have the money and expertise to mitigate urban slum populations’ vulnerability to natural disaster, but they often lack knowledge of slum populations. Civil society organisations - especially federations of the urban poor - have the knowledge and trust of urban poor communities, but lack the money and political muscle to change legal frameworks. As Wisner explains: “The hardest part is that though both civil and municipal societies possess complementary strengths, they haven’t been able to work together. There exists no bridge between these two groups.”

Theme(s): (IRIN) Natural Disasters, (IRIN) Urban Risk


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
Print report
FREE Subscriptions
Your e-mail address:

Submit your request
 More on GLOBAL
GLOBAL: Tomorrow's Crises Today: The Humanitarian Impact of Urbanisation - Overview
GLOBAL: Articles on urban employment and food security
GLOBAL: Articles on urban risk: housing, land and governance
GLOBAL: Sex in the City
GLOBAL: Links and references on Urban Risk
 More on Natural Disasters
AFRICA-ASIA: Natural Disasters and the Environment
IRIN: Today's most popular IRIN articles
OMAN: Authorities on high alert for approaching cyclone
ERITREA-YEMEN: New locust swarms threaten crops
YEMEN-HORN OF AFRICA: Government combats wheat killer disease
Back | Home page

Services:  Africa | Asia | Middle East | Radio | Film & TV | Photo | E-mail subscription
Feedback · E-mail Webmaster · IRIN Terms & Conditions · Really Simple Syndication News Feeds · About PlusNews · Bookmark PlusNews · Donors

Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States. Republication is subject to terms and conditions as set out in the IRIN copyright page.