Asia is among the most disaster prone regions in the world. The region is also home to half of the world’s urban population. It constitutes one of the world’s most rapidly urbanizing regions. Sixty-six out of the 100 fastest-growing urban areas are in Asia (Children in an Urban World, The State of the World’s Children 2012, UNICEF). As disasters have been increasing, cities have become hotspots of disaster risks. Most cities in the developing world, including cities in this region, are located in areas where earthquakes, floods, landslides and other disasters are likely to happen. Over the last 10 years, climate related disasters have also increased by more than 40%, magnifying the risks that cities are already confronted with; particularly those associated with poverty, lack of basic services, slum formation, unplanned and unstable buildings, houses and infrastructures located in hazard prone areas, pollution and environmental degradation.
Clearly, it is imperative to build and strengthen the resilience of the urban populace, particularly the vulnerable groups, to reduce disaster risk. And as cities serve as economic hubs and provide a vast array of opportunities, it is equally important to address the resilience of urban systems such as water, food and energy. Lastly, the interaction of the populace with urban systems are defined and enabled or limited by institutions, i.e. authority, legal, regulatory, policy frameworks and processes. Reducing vulnerability to disasters and increasing resilience would necessitate reforms and innovations in critical institutions.
Mainstreaming of risk reduction within the urban planning and development process is non-negotiable since the emergence of risk is engrained in a city’s very foundation. When populations migrate to a new location due to economic reasons and settle in unfamiliar atmosphere, their physical as well as social risk levels rise. Such settlements take place in areas not inhabited and are often in locations of high hazard exposure, such as river banks, transportation interchanges, mining or industrial hubs or other such centers of high turnover, high traffic and high risks. Removed from their traditional social safety nets, the urban settlers do not have much to fall back upon in times of crisis. This is particularly true for the urban poor, who live in marginal settlements and sub-standard housing, with limited infrastructure and services, and with very little assets. Given the high population density in urban areas, including high concentrations of vulnerable people, increasing urban disaster risks are key concerns in discussions on the adverse impacts of climate change (Sluis and Aalst, 2006).
In its 2013 World Economic and Social Survey, the UN notes that as “urbanization is proceeding rapidly in developing countries, globalization and financialization are perpetuating inequalities, while exposing countries to greater risks of contagion from crises, and food and nutrition as well as energy security are threatened by competing demands on land and water, as well as environmental degradation.” Cities are growing naturally, through migration and through re-designation of rural and urban areas. Whichever the method, cities are growing faster than ever, and the larger a city, the faster it grows. Within this growth, insensitive or non-inclusive urban land-use planning, urban development and management, all lead to the creation of higher risk levels for some population groups.
In most Asian cities, these processes are based on a master planning approach that does not pay adequate attention to the urban poor. In addition, the informal sector does not include local people in the processes and depends on projection-based planning for unrealistic horizons instead of attempting to get close to real-time planning. Most of the world’s poor live in developing countries with rapidly growing populations, where poverty and population growth are reinforcing each other (Brown, 2001). Population pressure coupled with a host of other reasons is resulting in the growth of cities at an unprecedented pace. As there is lack of space to expand, cities are getting denser and are growing vertically. People are now building, living and working on lands that were earlier unoccupied because they were hazard prone, like steep slopes, low-lying lands, floodplains, river beds and drains. At the same time, human actions especially prevailing in the developed parts of the world over the last two centuries or so are now causing global warming and creating risks in an irreversible manner to all areas in general and in particular to mountain, riverine and coastal habitations. By its very nature of population concentration and developmental densities, urban areas give birth to risks. The informal nature of construction or density increases the risk of structures and infrastructures. Socially, the safety nets of closely-knit communities are lost, in fact, conflicts between unrelated communities increase. Similarly, there are evidence of environmental degradation, unhealthy living conditions and other factors accumulating risks, and more importantly, weakening resilience.