By Rajeev Issar, Policy Specialist, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction
Having lived my entire life in big cities, I always had a feeling that cities were safe from the vagaries of disasters -- which occurred in some distant rural area and never closer to home. Once in a while, incidents like rainfall induced flooding or mild earthquake shakings, which disrupted day-to-day life for some time, were shrugged off as one-off events. The sense of invincibility of the urban lives and livelihoods remained.
It took my harrowing experience during the Mumbai floods of 2005 to break this myth and jolt me, and many others, out of self-induced slumber. One day of torrential rain brought the city to its knees, flooding nearly 70 percent of the city, causing over 1000 casualties and billions of dollars in economic losses. Myself and millions of others had to stay put indoors for nearly 5 days and suffer property and economic losses. It was further reinforced after a few years during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 -- by when I had moved to New York -- with long outages, communication breakdowns, transportation closures and business shutdowns for days. These “redoubtable” cities’ (known to be 24/7 cities, i.e. cities which never sleep) famed infrastructure and socio-economic environment suddenly appeared fragile and inherently unable to mitigate, cope with, and recover from a disaster for a long time.
These and similar incidents in other major cities like Bangkok, Jakarta, etc. set me thinking. How is it that our cities face such high susceptibility to natural hazards and climatic impacts? What can be done to address the situation currently, while also ensuring that future urban development is duly informed by risk and resilience considerations? Why are we falling short and where are the pitfalls?
Fortunately, my work as a disaster and climate risk management professional with UNDP, and as thematic lead for the urban risk management practice, has afforded me an opportunity to analyze these issues from both policy and programmatic perspectives, and to support a range of innovative risk management and resilience building initiatives. For example, these have included working with the cities of Khartoum (Sudan), Ain Drahem (Tunisia) and Saida (Lebanon) to identify context-specific resilience indicators and benchmarks through multi-sectoral partnerships under the Arab Cities Resilience Project to implement and measure the progress of resilience building interventions and policies. Besides, addressing the peculiar urban context of the cities of Skopje (Macedonia), Yerevan (Armenia) and Ungheni (Moldova) under the ICT for DRR project, the focus has been to strengthen the institutional capacity of the municipalities and to harness the potential of ICT tools for effectively managing and reducing the risks in urban contexts and to support risk-informed development processes in partnership with academic institutions and private sector.
First, recognizing that disaster risk reduction cannot be effectively pursued alone, especially in the context of urban resilience, I feel it is essential to incorporate climate mitigation and adaptation as an integral part of the urban risk management and resilience building approach. Second, disaster risks need to be increasingly seen as an unfinished dimension of development. Contextual and actionable risk-information must be made available to urban planners and decision-makers to inform the urban planning and development matrix. Third, an increasingly urbanizing world underscores the need to focus on the so-called tier-2 and tier-3 cities, which are witnessing a major development boom. Fourth, with urban centers emerging as the catalysts for socio-economic growth, the need to adopt a systems approach with engagement of all stakeholders and development sectors merits attention.
However, it seems that the vulnerability of cities goes beyond disaster and climatic risks, and it seems that our cities are caught, as IPCC assessment succinctly says, “…in a ‘perfect storm’ of population growth, escalating adaptation needs…increasing levels of informality, poor governance….” [IPCC, 2014] Considering that the global population is expected to be over 66 percent urban by 2050 and that two-thirds of the urban environment is yet to be built, the opportunities to advance risk-informed and resilient urban development are aplenty and must be harnessed to reduce the exposure and vulnerability of people, urban assets and infrastructure to disaster and climatic risks.