Building urban resilience

August 05, 2019


The writer is a development practitioner working on climate justice.
The writer is a development practitioner working on climate justice.

HAZARDS like earthquakes and floods are termed ‘disasters’ when they cause damage to property or human life. Hazards are natural, while disasters are manmade. We cannot control natural events, but we can control how we prepare for and respond to the impact of these events to avoid disasters.

Some key trends indicate that we have serious disasters in the making. The frequency of natural hazards is increasing, with the global south bearing the brunt of climate change. Pakistan has witnessed rising temperatures and increased frequency of urban flooding. The current onset of rains in our major cities should not have taken anyone by surprise, yet over a dozen people died during the recent monsoon rains in Karachi. The frequency of similar events is likely to increase in coming years, and we need to be ready to face this challenge.

It is important to ask who is at greater risk of damage when such disasters strike and, usually, it is the poor and marginalised who are more vulnerable to disasters.

To illustrate this, let us examine the case of heatwaves. It was discovered that groups vulnerable to the heatwave in Karachi included slum dwellers, outdoor workers, the elderly and the very young. Other at-risk groups include street vendors, beggars, traffic police, hawkers and homeless people.

The issue goes beyond the scope of the disaster management authorities alone.

Vulnerable groups live in unsafe houses and do not have the reserves to deal with shocks and stressors. They further lack the voice to hold the state accountable. Currently, increasing pressures such as inflation and unemployment further restrict the capacity of households to respond to disasters.

Those who migrate are also more vulnerable to disasters. Internal migration is a fundamental demographic, social and economic feature of Pakistan, affecting up to half the country’s population. Migration to cities is more a norm than an exception; the chance to earn a higher income, coupled with the appeal of better services, drive people from rural areas into cities. But our cities are not equipped to deal with this influx, especially in the context of occurrences like these. The bottom line is that, the more that people migrate to cities, the more likely it is for disasters to hit, and our cities are unprepared for this.

The good news is that our relief efforts and immediate responses have improved since the 2005 earthquake.

Multi-hazard early warning systems are the key to reducing losses. The National Disaster Management Authority has recently been sending weather-based alerts in Urdu, outlining steps to undertake to reduce risk via SMS. Vulnerable groups might lack access to technology, so traditional means like disseminating information through mosques might need to be adopted to further strengthen this process. The public, especially those most vulnerable, must have the information, knowledge and support needed to maintain their safety and well-being during disasters.

While our relief and response has improved, our disaster risk mitigation, preparedness and management remain weak. One of the key factors that convert a hazard into a disaster is weak governance.

It is also important to consider that this issue goes beyond the scope of the disaster management authorities. To simply adopt a ‘disaster lens’ is limiting. Other state institutions like the planning and development, climate change, health and finance ministries need to be equally involved and work in close coordination to tackle this threat.

Cities need to adopt multiple strategies to understand their vulnerabilities and prepare for climate impacts. We need resilience planning for cities. Urban resilience is defined as “the capacity of urban systems, communities, individuals, organisations and businesses to recover, maintain their function and thrive in the aftermath of a shock or a stress, regardless of its impact, frequency or magnitude”. A resilient society can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary. Urban resilience planning enables this search for systemic rather than piecemeal solutions.

To give a few examples, resilience planning would involve designing appropriate infrastructure including water, transportation and telecommunications, educational facilities, hospitals and other health facilities, to ensure that they remain safe, effective and operational during disasters. It would also entail building better from the start to withstand hazards through proper design and construction. It would also involve the state revising and enforcing strict housing codes and standards.

It would call on establishing community centres and safe spaces to act as emergency shelters, which should have stockpiles of materials to implement rescue and relief activities. It would involve training the existing workforce and voluntary workers in disaster response, and strengthening technical and logistical capacities to ensure better response in emergencies.

Pakistan has adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, which lays out an effective roadmap for building resilience. While significant costs would be involved in financing resilience planning, these measures are critical to mitigate future risks and losses. Resilience planning should be a part of mainstream planning and city-level development. Our institutions should anticipate shocks and understand the long-standing vulnerabilities experienced due to urban stresses.

There is also a pressing need to work in partnership, as this is a collective challenge. It is not solely the state’s responsibility to deal with the impact of climate change. Civil society should work in collaboration with the state to build resilience rather than work in silos. For example, civil society can help campaign and reach out to vulnerable groups on steps they can take to reduce their risk to damage during flooding.

We also need to bring back a sense of ‘community’. We need to assume responsibility and take up the role of ambassadors of our area. We need to find new ways of communication and have mechanisms in place so that vulnerable groups know where to access help. We need to promote a culture of disaster prevention, resilience and responsible citizenship.

As institutions, cities and communities, we need to be better prepared and work towards securing a more resilient future.

The writer is a development practitioner working on climate justice.

Twitter: @myrahnerine

Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2019