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close this bookCrucibles of Hazard: Mega-Cities and Disasters in Transition (UNU, 1999, 544 pages)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the document1. Introduction - James K. Mitchell
View the document2. Natural disasters in the context of mega-cities - James K. Mitchell
View the document3. Urbanization and disaster mitigation in Tokyo - Yoshio Kumagai and Yoshiteru Nojima
View the document4. Flood hazard in Seoul: A preliminary assessment - Kwi-Gon Kim
View the document5. Environmental hazards in Dhaka - Saleemul Huq
View the document6. Natural and anthropogenic hazards in the Sydney sprawl: Is the city sustainable? - John Handmer
View the document7. Disaster response in London: A case of learning constrained by history and experience - Dennis J. Parker
View the document8. Lima, Peru: Underdevelopment and vulnerability to hazards in the city of the kings - Anthony Oliver-Smith
View the document9. Social vulnerability to disasters in Mexico City: An assessment method - Sergio Puente
View the document10. Natural hazards of the San Francisco Bay mega-city: Trial by earthquake, wind, and fire - Rutherford H. Platt
View the document11. There are worse things than earthquakes: Hazard vulnerability and mitigation capacity in Greater Los Angeles - Ben Wisner
View the document12. Environmental hazards and interest group coalitions: Metropolitan Miami after hurricane Andrew - William D. Solecki
View the document13. Findings and conclusions - James K. Mitchell
View the documentPostscript: The role of hazards in urban policy at the millennium - James K. Mitchell
View the documentAppendices
View the documentContributors
View the documentOther titles of interest

Postscript: The role of hazards in urban policy at the millennium - James K. Mitchell

Habitat II, the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Istanbul, 3 - 14 June 1996), provides a valuable benchmark of contemporary thinking about urban policy by researchers, managers, and political leaders throughout the world. During the past 25 years, the United Nations has sponsored a series of international conferences on pressing public issues, ranging from population and development to women's role in social change. Many of these gatherings have functioned as highly publicized forums for formulating policies that were subsequently adopted by international institutions and national governments. Befitting its status as the last major global policy meeting of the twentieth century, Habitat II was intended to function as a capstone to the entire conference series.1 Though rural settlements were not excluded from the agenda, the consequences of increasing urbanization were the focus of concern (UNCHS, 1996).

1 The conference was an enormous enterprise involving approximately 25,000 representatives, delegates, and other participants from governments and non-governmental organizations in almost every country. After a period of lengthy - sometimes heated - argument and intense negotiations, the conference issued a Declaration, an Agenda for further work, and a Global Action Plan.

Students of urban hazard watched the Istanbul meeting with considerable interest because they anticipated that it would reflect substantial recognition of the growing importance of environmental risks and disasters in cities, especially the very large cities that are now coming to dominate the global settlement pattern. This was a reasonable expectation because the toll of mega-city disaster losses had spiralled dramatically upward during the previous decade and several international organizations had already taken up the issue. In the 1980s, agencies with responsibilities for disaster relief (e.g. the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) drew attention to growing urban hazards and the urban effects of rural hazards (Wijksman and Timberlake, 1984; El-Hinnawi, 1985). Now other international agencies, for which urban hazards had not historically been a central concern, added them to their agendas. These included the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank (World Health Organization, 1992; UNEP/WHO, 1994; Kreimer and Munasinghe, 1992; Serageldin et al., 1995; World Resources Institute, 1996, p. 144). Furthermore, natural disasters were recognized as an important global issue in their own right. Among the UN meetings that led up to Habitat II was the World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction (Yokohama, 23 - 27 May 1994), which highlighted urban hazards (Ichikawa, 1995). The accompanying International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction has given rise to a variety of significant initiatives for mitigating the natural and technological hazards of large cities (IDNDR, 1996). Sensing the growing importance of urban disasters, the United Nations Commission on Human Settlements (UNCHS) adopted a resolution that directly addressed the role of natural disasters in urban areas and outlined a substantial programme of action (UNCHS, 1995).

Had the spirit of the UNCHS resolution carried over into Habitat II there would be little need for concern about the salience of hazards on the global urban management agenda.2 Unfortunately, expectations that Habitat II would produce a firm global commitment to hazard-sensitive urban development were largely disappointed. Hazards, disasters, and associated topics were barely mentioned in conference texts and then only in contexts that were marginal to the main thrusts of the meeting.3 Housing losses due to natural and man-made disasters were chosen as one of 29 indicators used to construct a global urban database, involving 235 cities in 110 countries (Appendix 3). But hazard-reduction goals were almost invisible among over 600 so-called "best practices" of urban management that were identified in a global inventory solicited by conference staff. For example, just 2 of the top 105 "best practices" of urban management identified during Habitat II involved responses to environmental hazards or disasters, and only one of these affected a mega-city (Cairo) (Appendix 4). Fewer than one-third of the 34 natural disaster projects included in a larger database of over 600 "best practices" were located in large cities (Appendices 5 and 6).

2 Resolution 15/11 of the UN Commission on Human Settlements was adopted at its fifteenth session in Nairobi (25 April - 1 May 1995). It summarizes various concerns that indicate a need for sustainable urban development and identifies measures for achieving that goal (see UNCHS, 1995, pp. 423 - 424). These are summarized as follows. Natural hazards and disasters are 2 of the 10 itemized concerns, namely: (1) "Natural disasters are an outcome of the interaction between natural hazards and vulnerable conditions which cause severe losses to people and their environments and they usually require outside intervention and assistance at national and international levels in additional to individual and communal responses"; and (2) "The challenge of comprehensive disaster mitigation programmes in urban areas is to continue general economic development and provide jobs, shelter and basic amenities while addressing the environmental and equity problems which are the real causes of vulnerability to natural hazards." Eight specific measures for improving the mitigation of natural disasters in urban areas are proposed: (a) setting up institutional structures that will ensure that natural disaster mitigation becomes an integral part of sustainable settlements development; (b) building national collective memories of disasters and responses to them; (c) improving access to safe building sites for poor people; (d) encouraging the siting of new settlements in safe areas; (e) identification of hazardous sites and conversion of them to productive uses in order to preclude illegal occupation; (f) reduction of threats associated with existing hazardous sites; (g) development of hazard-resistant housing; and (h) provision of technical assistance for hazard management to technicians, professionals, and administrators.

3 In Istanbul the main focus was on issues of urbanization, especially in large cities of developing countries. The most serious problems were identified as: inadequate financial resources; lack of employment opportunities; spreading homelessness; and the expansion of squatter settlements. The special concerns of refugees, migrants, and street children received particular attention. Much of the debate revolved around rights to adequate housing; reproductive health care; the future of the UN Centre for Human Settlements; and the inclusion of references to various social reforms affecting women, disadvantaged groups, and environmental health and justice. Recommendations for action reflected these topics. They included: (1) elimination of sexual exploitation of young women and children; (2) gender-disaggregated data collection; (3) lead poisoning prevention; (4) measures to take account of the social and environmental impact of policies; (5) a strong commitment to the economic empowerment of women, including references to the right to inheritance and flexible collateral conditions for credit; (6) affirmation of the right to an adequate standard of living for all people and their families; (7) language on environmental justice and environmental health; and (8) a reaffirmation of the call from the Beijing Conference on Women for control and regulation of multinational corporations and an appeal to the private sector to invest in communities (various issues of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, 1996, an independent reporting service that provides daily coverage of official UN negotiations for environment and development agreements wherever they take place in the world; it is published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development and supported by governments, United Nations agencies, and private foundations).

In light of the evidence provided in this book, the apparent failure to highlight burgeoning problems of urban hazards and disasters - especially natural disasters - is disturbing. It is disturbing not just because an important problem is being ignored by an influential constituency but also because failure properly to address urban environmental hazards may signal flaws in the conceptualization and operationalization of urban sustainability as a basis for managing large cities.4

4 The concept of sustainable development was the guiding principle around which much of Habitat II was organized and it is often viewed as a vehicle for shifting the emphasis of hazard-management policies from relief to mitigation.

The question that mega-city hazards pose to policy makers goes right to the heart of sustainability. How, if at all, can large and rapidly changing cities be made sustainable in the teeth of potentially devastating events that are also highly uncertain? Given the centrality of sustainable development as a guide to policy-making for all aspects of the human environment, the contention that it does not - as currently construed - adequately take account of environmental hazards is a serious challenge. A detailed argument in support of that claim is beyond the scope of this volume, but it is appropriate to introduce some important pieces of supporting evidence.

First, urban sustainability is a concept that is contested between advocates of so-called "Green" and "Brown" agendas; hazards play different roles in these agendas and are affected by different kinds of policy responses (Satterthwaite, 1996; World Resources Institute, 1996). The Green agenda gives pride of place to hazards that are linked with anthropogenic degradation of the physical environment (e.g. resource exhaustion, erosion, pollution) (Beatley, 1995; Mitchell and Ericksen, 1992). The Brown agenda highlights hazards in less developed countries that are linked to poverty and inadequate urban services (Main and Williams, 1994; McGranahan and Songsore, 1994). Acute geological, meteorological, and hydrological hazards are not excluded from consideration, but other types of human-constructed hazards that affect the poor on a daily basis are heavily emphasized. Surprises (i.e. unprecedented hazards), especially those that affect more affluent cities, receive little attention. Even if combined, these two agendas do not provide a comprehensive basis for addressing the hazard-management problems of large cities.

Secondly, differences between hazard mitigation and sustainable development ensure that important parts of each subject remain outside the frame of reference of the other. In other words, safety (a prime consideration in hazards management) does not necessarily equal sustainability, and contingencies (of which hazards and disasters are good examples) may require different responses than enduring problems (Mitchell, 1992; Berke, 1995). The truth is that large and complex cities require expansive management initiatives that can simultaneously address incommensurable goals. Mega-cities must be prepared to cope with unexpected or unfamiliar events as well as long-term problems; acute natural hazards as well as chronic crises of environmental degradation. Along with the evidence about trends in urban hazard that has been presented in this volume, the disjunctive events of recent history clearly support this claim (Hobsbawm, 1996).

To ignore the role of environmental hazards in cities is to deny important lessons of urban history. To discount the importance of natural hazards in contemporary mega-cities is to leave their populations exposed to worsening risks. To assume that sustainable urban development can be achieved without attention to problems of contingency - of which natural hazards are a pre-eminent example - is to court frustration and failure.


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