Let’s follow Aqaba’s lead on urbanization and disaster risk reduction | Jo Scheuer

03 Jul 2013

For the first time in history, a majority of the global population is urban, and this number is expected to rise. This isn’t necessarily bad — great cities can offer many benefits, especially when urban planning is prioritized. But cities present challenges when urban growth is fast, unplanned and unmanaged.

These challenges include high population density, unregulated and unsafe construction methods, environmental degradation, and inadequate water and drainage systems. Lack of planning can create weaknesses, exposing dense populations to worse impacts from disasters associated to natural events.

When a city doesn’t enforce building codes, for example, it runs the risk of high losses from earthquakes; poor and inadequate drainage systems can cause flooding and disease; disregarding shorelines and ignoring climate change can expose the populace to severe weather events.

Only a few months ago in Bangladesh, more than 1,000 people were killed during the collapse of a single, improperly constructed building. What will happen then when there are hundreds of poorly constructed buildings and an earthquake occurs?

The Aqaba Declaration notes that more than 56 percent of the Arab population lives in urban areas. In an urbanizing region, ensuring that cities are more resilient to natural hazards must be a priority. UNDP recommends measures that can be undertaken to address cities’ weaknesses, from developing and enforcing appropriate construction codes to clarifying roles and responsibilities of key officials in the event of a disaster.

The key message here is that cities must be engaged, aware, proactive and prepared.

Of course, cities by nature are dynamic and evolving. City administrations attest to the difficulty of fixing entrenched problems that are the result of decades of neglect. But it is possible to stop the pattern and build resilient cities.

Through the Aqaba Declaration, cities in the Arab region have committed themselves to setting up  local units for disaster risk reduction; conducting risk assessments; training volunteers; and establishing early warning systems. We welcome these moves and will support each of these initiatives through our regional and country-level teams.

Integrating risk reduction into development in Aqaba has been a priority for UNDP for many years, and it was through a seismic risk assessment carried out in cooperation with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation that we helped create the Aqaba Disaster Risk Management Unit. We were pleased then when Aqaba was recognized as the first Model City for DRR in the Arab Region by UNISDR in their resilient cities campaign.

Looking beyond 2015, as we grapple with the environmental, social and economic factors which are hindering development, we should acknowledge the risks associated with urbanization and follow Aqaba’s lead in addressing these head on.

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