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 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.