Urbanisation making us more susceptible to natural disasters, says global report

Calls for preparing communities and locals for possible disasters

By Soma Basu
Published: Tuesday 29 October 2013

The report has cited unplanned expansion and development in disaster-prone areas as another reason for increased disasters and mentioned Uttarakhand disaster as an example.

Rapid growth in the number of people living in urban areas is increasing the world’s susceptibility to natural disasters, warns a recent global report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), a London body representing engineers from various fields.

The report, titled Natural Disasters: Saving Lives Today, Building Resilience Tomorrow, calls for a much greater focus on preparing people for possible extreme natural events and building disaster resilience among locals.

It says that about 78,000 people are killed annually in natural disasters and another 200 million (or about 3 per cent of the human population) are directly affected by them. Economic loss from these tragedies stretches across the globe and ranges around US $100 billion a year, the report says, while citing the instance of tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.

According to the report, the trend of global urbanisation shows that 75 per cent of the world's population would be living in towns and cities by 2050, with 95 per cent of this expansion being anticipated in developing countries. The movement of more and more people into less resilient areas like coastal regions, flood plains and earthquake-prone zones has been cited as one of the factors responsible for more natural disasters. Degradation of natural environment is another reason for increasing calamities. The report cites unplanned expansion and development in disaster-prone areas as another reason for increased disasters and mentions recent flood fury in Uttarakhand in India as an example.

Building back better

The report stresses on the need to prioritise the next phase of rebuilding affected areas after any tragedy in cooperation with communities which are more resilient. For this, it suggests putting in place long-term infrastructure redesign and re-engineering, and incorporating knowledge from across the globe on the ways to build and scale up preparedness and resilience against future events, often termed as “building back better”.

“When extreme natural events like earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones occur, it is crucial that engineers are involved in early response activities, not only to assess damage and ensure safety of the remaining buildings and structures, but also to ensure that decisions are made for a longer-term,” said Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at IMechE, during the release of the report.

“As was seen earlier this week in India in case of cyclone Phailin, given adequate levels of preparedness and resilience many disasters could be avoided and lives and communities saved,” he added.

Fox also explained that engineering can play a big role in strengthening preparedness and reducing the impact of unavoidable disasters. “Engineers are critical to planning and developing specific and local resilience as they are the ones who can assess the gravity of issues like the availability of potable water, energy, sanitation, transport links for food supplies and interconnectedness of essentials like water and electricity,” said the IMechE head.

The report recommends that governments around the world should be more focused on building local capacity through planning and knowledge transfer and embedding long-term engineering perspectives along with short-term responses.

The report also reveals how the involvement of the private sector can be instrumental in overcoming the challenge of transferring technical ability to developing nations and their resilience programs.

Key findings of the report:

  • On an average, about 78,000 people are killed annually in natural disasters, with a further 200 million (or about 3 per cent of the human population) directly affected by it and economic losses running into about US $100 billion.
  • Man-made changes have removed the natural barriers which had been protecting the Earth against extreme natural events
  • Rapid growth of economic activity, human population and urbanisation in Asia-Pacific countries has rendered the region more vulnerable to the effects of extreme natural events
  • Between 1980-2009, about 38 per cent of disaster-related economic losses, from across the globe, occurred in Asia, which shows the continent is 25 times more susceptible to natural disasters than Europe

Natural disasters: saving lives today, building resilience for tomorrow

World disasters report 2013: focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action

Urban risk assessments: an approach for understanding disaster and climate risk in cities

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