Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is Urban the new Rural?

Recently, I returned from Nairobi where we launched this year's edition of the World Disasters Report. The report focuses on Urban Risk not least because for the first time in the history of mankind, more people live in an urban environment than a rural one and in just 20 years, over 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities and towns.

A fortunate minority will live in places like Turin, Tokyo or Toronto, where if your home catches fire or floods, you can call for emergency help and expect to collect on the insurance. Everyone in the house or apartment probably has their own space and clean water is on tap. You are connected to the sewage system and your garbage is collected.

A slum household is one where all of these things are absent. There is neither water nor sanitation. The living space is cramped and comprises poor quality building materials. And the inhabitants have no security of tenure.

In a slum, your house will burn down in front of you because the municipal government does not provide emergency services to ‘illegal’ settlements. And even if they did, there would probably be no access road. Your children are more likely to pick up a disease because there is no drainage system for the floodwater and nobody will have cleared the streets of garbage.

The childhood experiences of the Brazilian president, Lula da Silva, as quoted in this year’s World Disasters Report, are pretty typical for the 1 billion people who live in urban slums today:

“When our house flooded, I sometimes woke up at midnight to find my feet in water, cockroaches and rats fighting over space, and various objects floating around the living room … Every time it rained, we used to nail another piece of wood across the doorframe and dump another truckload of earth to reinforce the barricade. But the water level rose further. And the authorities never did anything.”

The real crisis in disaster risk reduction revolves around the so-called ‘vulnerability gap’ in urban communities where the authorities often lack the finance, the knowledge and the will to ensure a well-functioning urban environment and the communities have few resources and lack political influence.

Many of the 50,000 people who can die in an unexceptional year from earthquakes, or the majority of the 100 million people who might annually expect to have their lives turned upside down by floods, live in squalor on dangerous sites with no hazard-reducing infrastructure and no services.

Given the already large deficit in infrastructure and services that exists in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the urban risk divide is only set to grow wider as climate change brings on ever more severe disaster impacts in some of the world’s most vulnerable locations. Millions of people will be regularly marooned on rooftops in cities such as Dhaka competing for space with snakes. In Alexandria, Egypt, a 50 cm rise in sea levels will make 2 million people homeless.

Most population growth in the next decades will be in towns and cities of low- and middle-income countries. This urban expansion is conducive to more disasters because of the failure of governments, and many large international agencies and NGOs to adapt to the reality of urbanization.

The truth is that too many aid agencies lack urban policies and are slow to make the necessary shift from rural development, which is still very essential, to finding ways to better support vulnerable urban communities.

One of the great challenges of the 21st century for the humanitarian aid community is to learn how to work with the untitled, the undocumented, the unlisted and the unregistered that live on the edges of our cities in the flood plains and seismic zones of cities like Managua and Istanbul.

Forcible eviction is a constant threat to the urban poor who live from generation to generation without security of tenure. When disaster strikes and they lose everything, they are all too often at the back of the queue.

Fortunately, there are some examples of how good urban governance can support communities in slum upgrading projects which lead to disaster risk reduction. In Thailand, for instance, the Community Organizations Development Institute has channelled government funds for upgrading slums to over 2 million households over the last 18 years, an impressive achievement by any standards.

Much of the future direction of aid in urban settings could depend on the success or failure of the enormous humanitarian and political commitment to Haiti in the wake of last January’s catastrophic quake. A new universal way of working with the urban poor must emerge from the rubble of Port-au-Prince, which will ensure that building back better in the wake of disaster means treating owners, tenants and informal dwellers equally by emphasizing security of tenure.

If widely adopted, such an approach would be a huge contribution to risk management and a good first step towards motivating communities on the frontlines of disaster zones around the world to concentrate their energies on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.

And, back to our launch in Nairobi. One of the most important parts of the event was a community video produced entirely by young people of Kibera which is reputed to be one of the world's largest slums - this video presents life in a slum by those who know best, the residents. The urban poor are the real experts and need to be put firmly at the center of all efforts aimed at improving life in informal settlements and reducing the vulnerability of the population. This, we hope, is at least a good start.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pakistan: When floods recede, toughest challenges begin

The Pakistan 'superflood' has continued to be the primary focus of our combined aid efforts over the last weeks. Haiti has for now taken a back seat and other massive 'disasters' such as Niger - where famine looms and more than seven million are 'food insecure' - struggle to get the needed attention and funds.

The devastation in Pakistan has been one of the worst natural disasters witnessed in recent times in terms of the numbers of people affected and the massive swathes of territory that are completely destroyed and cut-off. But that is not nearly the whole story.

The impact has not only been about loss of life and entire communities being uprooted. Arguably more significant, livelihoods, properties, income sources, assets, animals, machinery and food stocks of millions of people (many of whom were already living hand-to-mouth) has been washed away and swallowed by the mountains of mud.

Throw into the mix the volatile political situation in-country and on Pakistan's borders and we have a cocktail for potential civil unrest and destabilization. Security concerns for the population and aid workers are growing and, in terms of media interest, these aspects of the disaster are now receiving more attention it seems than the actual human suffering - 'not getting aid through' is a much better story after all than 'getting aid through'.

I embed here for you a photo slide show we but together with our friends at Reuters in an effort to raise awareness (and funds - more than 50'000 hits so far). We will need to produce more of this type of product in order to dispell any misperceptions out there that when the floods recede the disaster is over - the opposite of course is the truth, the real problems are only starting.

A final word of recognition for the Pakistan Red Crescent - they are doing an incredible job and are leading the international effort of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement on the ground (for our latest update, if interested, check this). Years of dealing with large scale disasters and conflict-related population displacements has provided them with great experience and capacities. They will continue to receive our international solidarity, support and reinforcements as they strive to cope with the consequences in the years ahead.