How to adapt disaster management to an urban context

A flooded street in Manila. Most disaster risk reduction programs were designed for rural communities. Photo by: AusAID / CC BY

When we think about cities, we consider  high-rise buildings, highway roads, public services including schools and hospitals, and — arguably — progress and development.

But when a natural or man-made disaster strikes, do most urban communities, given their perceived “progress and development,” fare better than their rural counterparts, especially in rapidly urbanizing Asia-Pacific?

Given recent natural catastrophes in the region, the simple — albeit hasty — answer is no. Every community can prove to be equally vulnerable to the negative effects of natural calamities if stakeholders do not formulate and implement appropriate disaster management strategies, and this was precisely the theme of a workshop conducted this week in Manila by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“There is a growing concern worldwide that rapid urbanization, changing patterns in vulnerability and the increased intensity and frequency in weather-related disasters, poses new challenges for risk reduction and effective response [including the region],” IFRC stated in the pre-event report obtained by Devex.

While emergency response and disaster risk management is not a new development discussion, especially in Asia-Pacific, many of the strategies and best practices currently available in the international development landscape pertain to frameworks focused on rural contexts — a gap that needs to be bridged to have a comprehensive disaster management strategy.

“Most disaster risk reduction [and management] programs were designed for rural communities or adopted from rural experiences,” Jerome Zayas, technical manager at international scientific group Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative, said during the panel discussion, adding that urban communities face different challenges than rural ones including informal settlers and livelihoods, among others.

Zayas added that while existing rural-focused strategies can be seen as slightly inappropriate when implemented in urban settings, these documents, however, can be a springboard — and foundation — for the formulation of a separate urban disaster management strategy especially on the lessons learned and recommendations.

Knowledge and capacity

While the lack of information and technical capacity are considered perennial challenges when it comes to disasters particularly in the immediate relief phase on the ground, an arguably bigger challenge is the ability of stakeholders to understand the information — and have the capacity to implement it.

Zayas shared that during Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last November, one of the biggest factors of the huge number of casualties in Leyte and Samar was the storm surge. Many local governments argued that while information is there — provided by the country’s weather agency — they did not know what it actually means, hence their lack of preparation to the eventuality when it hit.

“When you give data to local governments, they sometimes don’t know what to do with it and how to make sense of it,” he said. “At this point, they don’t have the skills yet. National groups also require more experience in working with stakeholders.”

Other disaster sectors that need apt knowledge and capacity from all stakeholders also include the need to mainstream strategies, concepts and resources to avoid overlap and inefficiencies — something that proved costly during the first phases of relief post-Haiyan.

Some of the recommendations shared by EMI to the workshop include multi-stakeholder partnerships, emergency response and preparedness guidelines, strong institutional capacity particularly in the local context, and strong capability on tools adaptation and knowledge-sharing between and beyond concerned parties.

Urban disaster volunteers

Other topics discussed in the workshop included urban risk assessment, cash transfer programming, urban violence and a “green” approach to disaster management, among others.

Urban disaster law, according to the report, could assist in “enabling an environment for reducing, managing and mitigating disaster risks.” This is relevant given the challenges of land security and policy gap that has put the development future of Haiyan victims in limbo in terms of proper resettlement.

Another topic which was discussed with keen interest in the workshop was urban volunteer management. IFRC discussed that a different approach is needed for more diversification, retainment, safety and security and to better handle cases of “spontaneous volunteering.”

Mostafa Mohaghegh of the Iranian Red Crescent shared that while it is laudable to see the rise in volunteering when disaster happens,we must ensure that these volunteers are properly trained and have a good understanding of the mission of the disaster management strategy.

“In times of disasters, we don’t really need general volunteers as they sometimes prove to be a burden because there’s a requirement to manage them,” he said, explaining that groups may not have the time to do the trainings in times of disaster. “We need specialized and technically trained ones especially in times of disaster.”

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.