March 25, 2015, by Katharine Adeney

Disaster, Development and Urban Risk: a comment on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction   

By Pauline Eadie

The World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) was held in Sendai, Japan from 14-18 March 2015. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) organized the conference. The objective of the conference was to facilitate a post-2015 framework for disaster relief. The result of the WCDRR was the non-binding Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR). ‘Post-2015’ is now embedded in the lexicon of development practitioners as a signifier of the post Millennium Development Goal (MDG) era.  2015 also heralds the end of the ten-year Hyogo Framework for Action: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disaster (HFA). The HFA listed five priorities for Action that involved scaling up institutional and cultural awareness of safety, risk and resilience ‘at all levels’. A key theme was preparedness, including early warning.

Between 2005 and 2015 more than 1.5 billion people were affected by disasters. 700,000 lost their lives and economic losses were in excess of $1.3 trillion. The single greatest disaster in terms of loss of life was the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. The official death toll reached 87,350 (although this is dwarfed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which claimed over a quarter of a million lives). Meanwhile the greatest economic losses were felt in Japan. The material cost of the March 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami that hit off the Pacific Tōhoku coast was $210 billion. Japan was the host of the WCDRR and has now emerged as the only country currently willing to bankroll the SRDRR. The Japanese have pledged $4 billion whilst other countries have procrastinated over both binding targets and financial commitment.

The head of the UNISDR, Margareta Wahlström has claimed that the SFDRR ‘opens a major new chapter in sustainable development, as it outlines clear targets and priorities for action which will lead to a substantial reduction in disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health’. However some commentators have argued that the manner in which development is ‘done’ ensures that economic losses are unlikely to be reduced. Jerry Velasquez, the head of advocacy and outreach at the UNDRR, has commented that ‘development drivers are stronger drivers of the increase of risks than hazards themselves’. Velasquez makes a particular point of calling for better urban planning.

The urban poor are extremely vulnerable to natural disasters. Communities are often over-crowded and there is scant possibility of squatter or slum-housing meeting risk compliant building regulations. Urban population growth consistently outpaces rural population growth. This process is driven by industrialization and development and this trend is set to continue. In Lao PDR, Myanmar and Bangladesh more than 75% of the urban population live in slums. At the time of the 2010 earthquake, 86% of the population of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, was living in slums. Over 40% of the Philippine urban population lives in slums. The city of Tacloban, that bore the brunt of typhoon Yolanda, was a rapidly growing and a highly vulnerable urbanized area. Tacloban has a large community living in ‘informal’ housing. This community was both most at risk from the typhoon and least able to resurrect itself after the disaster. Poverty can turn a hazard into a disaster.


Urban risk is a key concern for the Philippines. Globally, of all urban conglomerates with 750,000 inhabitants or more, Manila is the most at risk from cyclones, floods and earthquakes. The urban populations of Lower Income Countries (LICs) such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Lao PDR are significantly less than the Philippines, however they are growing, in some cases rapidly. The urban population of Lao PDR has grown from 22% of the total population in 2000 to 35.4% in 2012. As LICs industrialize and develop the likelihood is that their cities will also grow. Velasquez is right about urban planning however building regulations will inevitably be of little consequence to shanty communities. Such housing is frequently found on unstable plots and experience has shown that they collapse like a pack of cards in the face of an environmental shock.

Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu, a Pacific island nation, on March 13th, one day before the start of the WCDRR. The 2012 World Risk Report identifies Vanuatu as the number one global disaster risk spot. It has seen an average of 3.64% urban growth annually for the last five years. A recent Asian Development Bank Report comments that urbanization has created ‘policy and planning challenges’ for Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, and that many urban immigrants ‘live in poor environmental conditions in urban and peri-urban settlement communities with little or no infrastructure or urban services’. Port Vila has been identified as the world’s most exposed city to natural disasters. Development drives people into hazardous environments.

In the preamble of the 2012 Vanuatu National Progress Report on the Implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action it states that ‘The awareness of disaster risk is apparent. The means of addressing disaster risk in development decision-making are not’. Perhaps unsurprisingly the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom notes that thirty years of debilitating corruption and an under-resourced judiciary have hindered structural and institutional reforms in the country. The extreme levels of vulnerability and lack of institutional resilience in Vanuatu have been sharply exposed by Cyclone Pam.

This leads me to two concluding points. Firstly sustainable development initiatives as a bulwark against climate change need to be just that, sustainable, as opposed to being drivers of the very vulnerability that they are meant to be countering. Secondly urban demographics and the resilience of cities are surely issues that policy makers need to reassess as they develop the post-2015 policy agenda. Cities are central to both the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change induced risk.

Pauline Eadie is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. She is Primary Investigator of the ESRC/Dfid funded project ‘Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’. You can follow this project on Facebook as Project_Yolanda and Twitter @Project_Yolanda.




Posted in AsiaNatural disastersSoutheast AsiaUnited Nations