Mass urbanisation increasing harm of natural disasters

18 October 2013
By Edd Gent
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The aftermath of the tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004

The aftermath of the tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004

The unprecedented influx of people to urban areas is increasing the world’s susceptibility to natural disasters, according to a new report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE).

s people across the developing world migrate to cities, more and more people are living in locations susceptible to natural disasters, and the report has found that situation is exacerbated by the explosive expansion of slums.

About 180,000 people move to urban areas every day, with 18 per cent of all urban housing being non-permanent, which are particularly vulnerable to the impact of extreme natural events.

Dr Tim Fox, head of Energy and Environment at IMechE, and lead author of the report, said:  “Extreme natural events like earthquakes, storms and floods are not in and of themselves disasters. As was seen earlier this week in India with Cyclone Phailin, given adequate levels of preparedness and resilience many disasters could be avoided and lives and communities saved.

“The shift towards urban living means more people are locating on coasts, more of the land that historically protected communities from floods like wetlands and swamps has been removed thanks to inappropriate development, and there has been a substantial rise in the number of people living in informal settlements or city ‘slums’. This means more people are exposed to the risk of being involved in a natural disaster.”

The report, titled ‘Natural disasters: saving lives today, building resilience for tomorrow’, calls for a greater focus on preparing people for the possibility of an extreme natural event occurring and building disaster resilience into communities – as opposed to concentrating largely on reactive relief initiatives in response to disasters after they have occurred.

In addition to fewer people being killed or injured, it is estimated that every $1 spent on building preparedness and resilience can save as much as $4 in relief, recovery and reconstruction later.

Action could also help avoid the consequences of disasters extending to international markets and supply chains as they did in the 2011 Japanese tsunami, which is estimated to have cost between $122bn and $235bn, due in part to disruption to international supply chains that either pass through or originate in Japan, like the automotive and electronics industries.

“It is clear that much more needs to be done to focus international development funding on resilience and preparedness,” said Fox.

“There is also the need for engineers to be more involved in the short-term response to natural disasters that have occurred, to help ensure effective decisions are made for the longer-term.

“Expensive engineering and architecture isn’t the only solution; significant benefits could be achieved just by ensuring engineers are available to help locate temporary infrastructure such as camps and supplies of water, sanitation and energy, as well as transfer knowledge about resilience to local populations.

“Decisions made on these temporary solutions can place substantial constraints on future options for embedding resilience when reconstruction begins in earnest”

As part of the report, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has made three key recommendations that could help the world become more resilient to the effects of natural events like earthquakes, floods and storms:

The first is to focus more international development funding on building future resilience as currently only 4 per cent of all international humanitarian aid relief is channelled to helping build resilience in disaster hotspots, well below the UN’s recommended 10 per cent.

The second suggestion is for both governments and the private to prioritise the transfer of knowledge, information and skills for the building of local resilience capacity, including technical konledge, improved building standards and codes, engineering practice know-how and appropriate relevant training.

The final suggestion is to embed the long-term engineering view in the short-term response, ensuring NGOs, national governments, the UN and others involved in co-ordinating the short-term response to natural disasters should seek the early involvement of engineers as decisions made in the immediate recovery stage set the engineering foundations and constraints for eventual reconstruction and redevelopment.

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