Boost resilience of small and mid-sized cities

AnzaBy: Joern Birkmann, Torsten Welle, William Solecki, Shuaib Lwasa& Matthias Garschagen

It is fitting that the United Nations Habitat III conference in October will be held in Quito, Ecuador. In April, the city and nearby Portoviejo and Manta suffered an earthquake that killed more than 660 people and injured at least 10,000. Around 73,000 people were displaced. Some 700,000 needed emergency assistance, such as drinking water, sanitation and hygiene kits. Many water-supply systems and hospitals were destroyed or disrupted. Insurance companies estimated the damage at US$2.5 billion, of which only 16% was insured. Three months after the quake, 11,000 people still lacked basic services.

Nature special: A new urban agenda

Such devastation highlights how susceptible many cities are to natural hazards, from flooding to drought, heat, storms, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides. To minimize suffering, cities need to be able to anticipate, absorb, recover and learn quickly from adverse events.

At Habitat III, around 170 countries will adopt the UN’s New Urban Agenda, which calls on governments to make cities more inclusive, sustainable and resilient. The declaration is not legally binding, but signatories will commit to global standards for sustainable urban development. These include promoting social cohesion (especially in times of mass migration towards cities), preserving natural resources and reducing disaster risk through planning that involves multiple sectors and is environmentally sound.

Rapid Growth

Megacities have long been seen as hotspots of risk from natural hazards because they are places where people, assets and political power concentrate2, 3. Insurance studies equate risk with city size and hazard exposure. Megacities such as Jakarta or Dhaka have more industries at stake and might be more likely to suffer floods and droughts than medium cities such as Lilongwe in Malawi or Dar es Salaam in Tanzania (see These studies account for a few aspects of preparedness, such as construction quality. But they do not factor in sufficiently the different capabilities of communities and cities to deal with extreme events.

The vulnerabilities of small and medium-sized cities are being underestimated compared to those of megacities for four reasons: limited data, political power, personnel and resources. It is not known exactly how many people live in hazard-prone urban areas. Knowledge of past and future impacts of extreme events (such as deaths, economic losses and livelihood disruptions) for different city sizes is limited, particularly in developing countries.

Joined-up governance
In the developing world, poor infrastructure and planning exacerbate disruptions when extreme events hit6. Poor governance, uneven public investments, lack of basic environmental and social data, and corruption hamper cities’ ability to function. Standards for earthquake- or flood-resistant constructions of public buildings such as schools are often bypassed. Many groups, such as poor migrants, are often marginalized. Such problems are holding back the development of water supply and treatment infrastructures in small and medium Ugandan cities, for example.

Data sources: 1. World Bank, Transparency Intl, Fund for Peace, Munich Re, Sage-Centre, Univ. Wisconsin-Madison, PREVIEW Global Risk Data Platform, ILO; 2. UNDESA Population Division (2014), World Urbanization Prospects (2014 Revision). Data analysis: J.B. et al. (1, 2)

Next steps
Targets and priorities are needed for future actions and investment. A new way of grouping countries and cities according to urban size, vulnerability and growth is required (beyond the country classes of ‘least developed’, ‘low income’, ‘middle income’ and ‘high income’). Benchmarks for strengthening urban resilience and adaptation should be set by the international community, regional organizations (such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the African Union and the European Union), national governments, cities and local communities or city networks.

Improved monitoring of hazards, human susceptibilities and coping and adaptation processes by municipalities, cities and civil-society groups is also required. Monitoring by citizens would complement official government and international data and engage different groups. Finally, more emphasis should be given to understanding how national and local governance influence resilience at the community level in urban areas.

Read complete publication: Nature



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