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World Disasters Report 2010: Focus on urban risk

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30


Dr. Cassidy Johnson – Lecturer on Building and Urban Design in Development, University College London

Dr. Sara Pantuliano – Head of Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI

Pete Garratt - Disaster Response Manager, British Red Cross


David Peppiatt - International Director,  British Red Cross

David Peppiatt began by introducing the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) World Disasters Report. This report is produced annually by the IFRC and provides an analysis of the latest critical facts and figures of disasters loss and damages. This year’s report which focuses on urban risk is a timely report given the events of 2010 which have highlighted the scale of vulnerability in urban settings. The event provides the opportunity to touch on some of the new challenges, risks and opportunities for those working in these contexts and to also show how the British Red Cross grapples with some of these issues. The landscape is changing as we increasingly see the urbanisation of disasters and disaster risk. There are challenges around access, security and provision of services and this is compounded by weak and fragile infrastructure. The report touches on a range of issues including trends analysis, climate change and urban violence and the ensuing discussion will consider some of these.

Cassidy Johnson began by stating that the World Disasters Report was a collaborative work and that she had worked with colleagues from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). The focus of her presentation would be on trends in urbanisation and the impacts of these trends on risk. Two striking trends stood out in particular. The first being the growth in urban populations, especially in low-income countries (LICS) and middle-income countries (MICS). Most of the growth projected in LICS and MICS is in Asia. The second point to highlight is the distribution of fatalities and economic loss. For example, there is likely to be 17 more times mortality in the Philippines than Japan if a cyclone of the same strength hit both countries. The reason for this disparity is due to how these cities are built combined with the concentration of people in these areas. Risk analysis is important in order to help the humanitarian sector respond in urban contexts as well as plan for longer term programming.

Cassidy then focused on her research in Korail, Bangladesh and highlighted the different kinds of urban risk as well as the fact that risk is uneven across areas. It is concentrated in informal settlements as communities are forced to build on steep slopes and other types of insecure land. It is often the only land that is available but in Korail, for example, this land is also in close proximity to high income areas and therefore communities’ livelihoods showing that there are specific ways that risk is accumulated. She then considered the difficulties in understanding risk due to the different types of data that is available. For example, one could measure risk as economic impact or not focus on small and medium-scale disaster events. Cassidy commented that the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) data can be useful but that the data for urban risk is quite varied. She provided some examples, including Munich Re, the DesInventar Database and the Mandisa database. A contrast on the data available can be provided between Munich Re, which shows that 17 of the top 25 countries are high income countries, whereas the Mandisa database which looks at disasters on a much smaller scale, found that dwelling fires in concentrated areas in Cape Town occurred on a massive scale and cost $80,000 per community. Yet these latter types of events are not part of any urban risk consideration.

Cassidy then moved on to highlight the two main themes of the report which consider the strength of local governance in addressing urban risk as well as communities themselves. This type of work is central to the work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. However, disaster survivors are often not consulted in terms of recovery or disaster risk reduction (DRR) programming and there is therefore a need to support local organisations. Cassidy concluded that the issues facing humanitarian actors in terms of urbanisation are broad but the key lay in addressing governance issues.

Sara Pantuliano reviewed the report to see if there is any resonance with Humanitarian Policy Group’s (HPG) work and found that even though the WDR focuses on disasters and DRR and HPG’s work focuses on urbanisation in conflict and post-conflict situations, there are still parallels. Sara then commented on the link between the urban poor and urban housing and how strongly vulnerability and risk are associated with housing. This association appears in both the WDR as well as HPG’s work. She then gave an example from Juba, Sudan where communities lived on insecure land but the land was close to livelihoods, for example access to services and work. The government showed a lack of understanding of the link between housing and livelihoods and thus moved people to different properties. The government believes the properties to be better due to quality but do not notice that they are far out and therefore far from communities’ livelihoods. What ends up occurring is that people eventually migrate back. This can also happen in reconstruction efforts where humanitarian actors work, as homes are often rebuilt better further away so that people often go back to the original settlements. The focus should be on upgrading current settlements and thinking of solutions that can help communities, for example, help with security, land tenure and access to services. Reconstruction often ignores the issues around tenure and the need to acquire a more durable tie to the land. It may be in some cases that it is too difficult or expensive. However it can be done as evidenced by work done by the Norwegian Red Cross. Following disasters and conflicts, the land where people have informally lived is often seized very quickly, either illegally or for profit making initiatives. Or in Juba for example, the designation of the land is changed which causes problems for the urban poor to build on land due to restrictions.

There is also a risk to health as there is an assumption that if you are in town, you are better off due to access to services. However, in Sudan there has been an increase of malnutrition and TB in urban settings. Poor waste management, damp and untreated water are part of the several reasons for the health risk. There are also the challenges urbanisation poses for youth. Youth move hoping for better opportunities but become demoralised and this therefore leads to gangs and an increase in urban violence. Well-organised criminal organisations are an economic strategy to make money so that they can survive. Sara however did highlight some positives, for example, in Nairobi, Somali refugee communities have made economic gains as they control many businesses there. The communities have made use of opportunities that being in a town provides. Those fearing persecution can also find a protective space within towns.

Pete Garratt began by welcoming the growing attention to urban risk and disasters in urban contexts even though it is an overdue focus. He commented that it is clearly a complex area and that the complexity accentuates the challenges humanitarian agencies face. Pete outlined three areas for his presentation; targeting vulnerability, the appropriateness of humanitarian tools and exiting from an urban context.

1. Targeting: Assessment in areas is very difficult for example due to shifting populations. When assessments were taking place in Haiti, populations would shift to make the most of possible aid. In addition, in Haiti, differentiating between ‘earthquake affected’ and those who weren’t directly affected by the earthquake was almost impossible. The British Red Cross engaged with both as it couldn’t legitimately differentiate between the two. Working in urban contexts is so hard that sometimes agencies do go to “easier” rural areas. An example can be seen after the Pakistan earthquake in 2005 where agencies avoided Muzaffarabad and headed to the villages in the hills to deliver aid. Another issue for agencies lack of involvement is the need to demonstrate value for money especially in the current UK climate and it is difficult to evidence this in urban settings. The reality is that humanitarian agencies can’t work in isolation. A British Red Cross example from Djibouti demonstrates this as it has a food insecurity programme in a peri-urban part of the city targeting vulnerable women and providing micro-finance. However, it is a small intervention within longer term chronic vulnerability and therefore there is a need for wider sectoral involvement, for example, other agencies and development activists.

2. Appropriateness of traditional humanitarian tools in urban disasters, greater understanding is now occurring than before on the part of organisations. Urban contexts mean that agencies have to move quicker and much more smartly for example using cash transfers. Some people bounce back quite quickly and agencies need to be in a position to allow them to do this. Concerning shelter there is the challenge of construction, not least due to lack of available space. In IDP camps in Haiti for example, latrines could not be built within Sphere standards and had to be adapted. Furthermore, land tenure issues often impede reconstruction. In the Philippines after Ketsana it was a slow process but agencies invested in local authority connections to address these challenges.

3. Exiting from urban environments: how do you exit when the levels of vulnerability do not change? Who do you hand over to? “Disaster relief agencies cannot address the root causes of why so much of a city’s population was heavily impacted” (p.26 of WDR).The recent Federation-commissioned report on Sanitation in Haiti highlighted the fact that many of the areas where humanitarian agencies, including the Red Cross, are providing water and sanitation services never had them before. In Haiti, there is a need for long term investment and innovative solutions. Urban contexts amplify our work; it is not impossible to adapt but we can do a lot more.


1.    Do agencies need to find different roles in urban contexts? Where they may have been good in rural programming, they may not be so good within an urban context.

2.    Are economic shocks considered generally and were they within the report? For example, in Dhaka there were food riots which may not be a “disaster” as generally understood.

3.    What about the use of traditional systems to ensure security of tenure rather than focusing on the court system?

4.    Is there a need for a more integrated approach? Resilience, response, recovery are often discussed in silos.

5.    (Tied to the above) How to increase donors’ understanding of the key issues?

6.    In Haiti, it was felt that most of the response was in cities so those not in settlements or camps felt ignored and this caused secondary movement as people moved to camps. How to avoid this?

7.    What about the impact on urban areas of migration and displacement as a result of climate change? Was this mentioned in the report?

8.    Are we running the risk of not failed states but feral cities? There is a surge in conflict between non-state actors as the nature of conflict is changing and this causes risk around resources.

9.    Are there any positive examples of addressing land tenure challenges?

10.The report focuses on local governance focus but what about national governance?

Pete responded to the first question by agreeing whole heartedly and that social linkages and community mobilisation were where humanitarian agencies have a role to play and therefore need to explore more especially through partnerships e.g. Dinepa.

Cassidy in responding to question 2 used the example of the commodities crisis in Bangladesh (pg. 38 in WDR) which showed that in March 2007, daily labourers in urban areas were able to purchase 5 to 7 kilograms of rice for one day of work, yet one year later, the same day’s work purchased only 3.7 to 5 kg of rice, the main staple food.

Sara responded to question 3 stated that trends through research have been captured quite well. Pluralistic systems all come into play and have a bearing on access to land i.e .legal and traditional systems. The problem is whether an agency is providing the correct advice and aid and therefore there is a need to make sure you understand the context pre and post disaster.

Sara responded to question 4 and the need to cut across silos and build resilient futures and that (in responding to question 5) there is a need to push back on donors as to how inappropriate binary funding is.

In responding to question 6, Pete stated that agencies need to do more analysis to understand the dynamics of seeking to help those who need it. For example in Haiti, the British Red Cross struggled to get assistance to certain places without being a “candle to moths.” The British Red Cross did try to address this in Les Cayes where it tried to give people incentives to stay but it was done too late as there was a short window of opportunity and may not have even worked. People migrated back to Port-au-Prince as it is the economic centre of Haiti.

Cassidy responded to question 7 by stating that the report did touch on migration, for example in Dhaka, and why people are moving to the city and how long they had been there to better understand the driving forces. Some movement occurred due to perceived opportunities. If however people generally are being forced to move without opportunities being available then this has huge implications for cities.

Sara considered the positive impacts of the ICRC working in Palestine for question 8. Most of the successful work was done by local organisations as local actors know and understand the issues. Incumbent on international communities to embrace this.

Different examples were given by the panel in responding to question 9, which included:

Turkey: Positive impacts on land tenure seen where the national government has strong control over land but there were successful partnerships with local governance. There is a need to develop relationships before a disaster so that the relationships are built beforehand and can be used post –disaster.

Philippines: Local branch of Philippines Red Cross had links with authorities before disaster and where it was appropriate to build and work around issues of land tenure. This made a difference to a few thousand families.

Malawi, Karonga (urban area): December 2009 earthquake. Cash grants provided. Malawi Red Cross and British Red Cross worked with local authorities to identify good sites and address issues regarding land tenure between owners and tenants. There are beacons of good practice to build on and learn from.

Cassidy finally remarked for question 10 that there is a role to play for national governance structures. But it depends on the particular country situation and who owns the land. There is a very specific situation for each locality and thus the response needs to be tailored.

David thanked everyone and ended the event by hoping that the report can be useful to all.


For the first time in human history, more people live in an urban environment than a rural one. In just 20 years, over 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities and towns. The rapid expansion of cities, and the extreme poverty that often accompanies urbanisation, has left the lives and livelihoods of city dwellers even more vulnerable to disasters and shocks.

ODI in partnership with the British Red Cross hosted the launch of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) annual World Disasters Report (WDR) in the UK, with a stern warning that 2.57 billion urban dwellers living in low- and middle-income nations are vulnerable to unacceptable levels of risk fuelled by rapid urbanization, poor local governance, population growth, poor health services and, in many instances, the rising tide of urban violence. Much of this urban population is also particularly exposed to the consequences of climate change.

Working in urban environments presents unique difficulties to humanitarian action, which have been highlighted in the recent response to Haiti’s devastating earthquake. The challenge for humanitarian actors is to find new and concrete ways of engaging with local authorities and communities to ensure their vulnerability to disasters is reduced.

Dr. Cassidy Johnson, one of the authors of the WDR, will present the key findings of the report and explore the issue of disaster risk reduction in urban contexts. Dr. Sara Pantuliano will discuss the work that the Humanitarian Policy Group is currently doing on urbanisation and Pete Garratt will provide some reflections from British Red Cross’ experience in the field.