Natural disasters: saving lives today, building resilience for tomorrow

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Risk increasing due to people moving to earthquake, storm and flood prone areas, city ‘slums’, and through the removal of natural defences

October 18, 2013

The rapid growth in the number of people living in cities and urban landscapes is increasing the world’s susceptibility to natural disasters, according to a new report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers: ‘Natural disasters: saving lives today, building resilience for tomorrow’.

The report warns that the unprecedented influx of people to urban areas across the developing world is leading to a large increase in people living in locations susceptible to natural disasters, and the situation is exacerbated by the explosive expansion of informal settlements or ‘slums’. About 180,000 people move to urban areas every day, with 18% of all urban housing being non-permanent or ‘slums’ – which are particularly vulnerable to the impact of extreme natural events.

In addition many of the world’s largest cities are located in earthquake, storm and flood prone areas (three quarters of the world’s largest cities are located on a coast), and urban land development is leading to the degradation or even total destruction of natural barriers like swamps, wetlands and mangroves. Globally, changes to ecosystems have contributed to a significant rise in the number of floods and major wildfires on all continents since the 1940s.

The report calls for a much 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. This action could also help avoid the consequences of these disasters extending to international markets and supply chains – as they did in the 2011 Japanese tsunami. The impact of natural disasters on international markets has increased as we move towards an increasingly globalised world - the economic damage as a result of the Japanese tsunami is estimated to be between $122 billion to $235 billion, with the disaster disrupting international supply chains that either pass through or originate in Japan, like the automotive and electronics industries.

Dr Tim Fox, Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 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.

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

To focus more international development funding on building future resilience. Currently only 4% of all international humanitarian aid relief is channelled to helping build resilience in disaster hotspots, well below the UN’s recommended 10%. As it is estimated that every $1 spent on making communities more resilient can save as much as $4 in disaster relief in the future, by spending now, donor nations such as the UK could maximise their development aid. Doing so would provide better living for residents, ensure more effective use of UK taxpayers’ money and help ensure a more secure future for all.
Build local capacity through knowledge transfer. Governments, the private sector and all those with a stake in global supply chains need to prioritise the transfer of knowledge, information and skills for the building of local resilience capacity. Technical knowledge for embedding resilience thinking, improved building standards and codes, engineering practice know-how and appropriate relevant training builds local expertise and indigenous capability. To facilitate international knowledge transfer partnerships, the Hyogo Framework priority for action to reduce the underlying risk factors must be reinvigorated by the UN, and DFID and its international counterparts should create long-term engineering placements (three or more years) that enable effective transfer of relevant skills and know-how. By helping to ensure nations are able to cope more effectively with extreme natural events, the prospects for the future stability and continuity of worldwide supply chains are improved.
Embed the long-term engineering view in the short-term response. 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 in their activities. Decisions made in the immediate recovery stage of a response set the engineering foundations and constraints for eventual reconstruction and redevelopment. The quicker engineers can begin infrastructure assessment and longer-term reconstruction planning, the better short-term decision-making will be and the more likely a successful overall outcome that increases a community’s resilience.

To read the full report: Natural disasters: saving lives today, building resilience for tomorrow