In recent years we have seen and experienced more frequent and severe natural hazard events. These have exacerbated the destruction of coral reefs and trees, the loss of vegetation, and soil and coastal erosion. As heightened climate variability and extremes unfold, we will continue to witness worsening environmental and ecosystem degradation.
We are familiar with flash floods that have wiped out communities in many parts of the globe. These tragic events rendered land and resources unsuitable for dwelling and livelihood and forced the relocation of countless families. Worldwide, more and more people are migrating due to disasters including those resulting from climate-related hazards — both rapid and slow onset. This trend has grave implications on urban areas whose services and infrastructures have not caught up with rapidly increasing populations. Population pressure on unplanned urbanization burdens the most vulnerable populations who are often poor informal settlers, women and children and people with disabilities. With more storms, floods, forest fires, droughts and rising seas, the face of the earth is changing.
But this is only one side of the picture.
For a long time, land use planning has disregarded risk brought about by natural hazards. The allocation, conversion, and development of flood plains and wetlands in the name of economic growth has led to increasing floods. This is true of forest lands converted for agricultural and commercial purposes which aggravates soil erosion. With rapid urbanization, actors have been behaving more like what the economist Paul Krugman describes as a “self-organizing economy.” Condominiums are built in hazard-prone areas, and slums are located next to high rise buildings and residences. Non-compliance to and/or outdated building codes and zoning regulations have all exposed populations and infrastructures to disasters resulting from natural hazard events. We have gotten used to news about schools, hospitals, houses and buildings being destroyed by disasters, resulting in thousands of deaths.
In its 2011 Global Assessment Report, the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction notes that it is the so-called extensive disasters — high frequency, low severity — which do not cause significant fatalities that are responsible for a large proportion of damage to local infrastructure and the housing and livelihoods of low-income households and communities. The report unravels the link between localized, extensive disasters to “badly planned and managed urbanization, environmental degradation and poverty.”
Indeed, land use is a defining underlying risk factor that contributes to vulnerability to natural hazards in almost all aspects: loss of lives, environmental degradation, and damage to properties, livelihoods and to the economy. Risk-sensitive land use planning is vital in reducing vulnerability to natural hazards.
Land use is equally a driver in the emission of greenhouse gases, resulting in global warming and observed climate change. Sprawl promoted by prevailing land use planning models have led to increased use of fossil fuel-dependent vehicles, a primary contributor to carbon dioxide emissions. Deforestation and land use change is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
Clearly, governments do not need more evidence on the contribution of current land use and management on climate change and disaster risk. They do not need more disasters to realize the significance of risk-sensitive land use planning. They only need to make a difficult choice.
What to do
One of the vital measures that governments can undertake is to adopt a policy to develop hazard and risk assessment — together with or incorporating environmental impact assessment — where required.
Coupled with the promotion of decentralization, at a sub-national level, there should be a land use policy and essential zoning regulations indicating areas for: no-build zones due to high risk, zones where you can build but with maximum protection when there is moderate to low risk, and safe zones. Such policies need robust investment in redirecting business centres and residential activities towards safe areas. Here, public-private partnerships are crucial in setting up livelihoods for residents and viable investment opportunities for the private sector. Governments can also embark on a buy-out scheme and transform the land and property in high risk areas as buffer zones.
In addition, capacity building for planners, engineers and masons on assessing and building safe infrastructures should match policy and investment. The development of risk protection and insurance coupled with incentives may well work in promoting risk-sensitive and sustainable land use. Crucial to this is the integration of disaster risk reduction in development planning, within various sectors. Appropriate policy, capacity building and investment are seriously needed to move this agenda forward.
The challenge for humanitarian agencies is to take on urban programming and urban DRR not as compartmentalized work but as interrelated and intersecting work. A cohesive approach better enables the institution to tackle the complex issues of land use, disaster risk, and climate change, including their impacts on health, livelihoods, infrastructure, water scarcity, food security, slum formation and poverty, among others.
In Cambodia, World Vision embarked on land tenure support project for 16 communities in Phnom Penh who were categorized into 3:
a) Excluded from land registration.
b) Recipients of eviction notices.
c) Struggling for land titles.
The project worked on upgrading communities towards land registration. Community mapping and documentation were critical in proving the history, presence, and profile of the households. Other DRR-related measures intended for community upgrading were in environmental management were community clean-up, fire prevention skills building, waste management and sanitation, and house renovation. These activities did not only strengthen risk reduction but were used as leverage by communities in their negotiations with the government for land registration to transform their informal settlement status to a more formal one.
Much has been said of a nexus approach to effectively address the complex issues of the 21st century, in order to create and move towards genuine sustainable development.
Difficult choices have yet to be taken, and much has yet to be done to make this a reality.
Want to know more? Check out Land Matters, a new campaign to showcase innovative solutions in the areas of food security, economic development, conservation and more.
Ronilda Co is disaster risk reduction and community resilience specialist at World Vision International, where she focuses on technical support for urban DRR and climate change adaptation. Before joining World Vision in the Philippines, Co advised Asia-Pacific governments on DRR policy, planning, and implementation.