Shoring up cities against disaster

UN-Habitat on Wednesday launched a new programme calling on Heads of State and governments at the Rio +20 conference to provide a framework to help make cities around the world safer from disasters.

The launch of the Urban Resilience Indexing Programme followed a call on the Rio meeting by the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Ms. Margareta Wahlström, urging UN Member States to face up to the realities of the economic and human impact of disasters since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 20 years ago.

During that time the world has seen record economic losses, great numbers of people killed and billions displaced, injured or rendered homeless - most of them in heavily populated urban areas - because of growing exposure to extreme events fuelled by rapid urbanisation, poverty, environmental degradation, climate change and a lack of good governance.

"The numbers tell the story. Over the last 20 years, it is conservatively estimated that disasters have killed 1.3 million people, affected 4.4 billion and resulted in when you consider what it means in terms of missed opportunities, shattered lives, lost housing, schools and health facilities destroyed, cultural losses and roads washed away," she said. "We can do better. The Rio+20 Conference needs to put down a marker and introduce time-bound, realistic sustainable development goals which will eradicate this enormous waste of human, social and economic resources. We know how to do it. We have the tools."

Ms. Wahlström and UN-Habitat Executive Director, Dr. Joan Clos, were each selected as a leading United Nations to talk about disasters and cities respectively as two of seven key topics under consideration at the global Rio +20 Sustainable Development Summit which opened on Wednesday.

Their remarks were widely broadcast on the eve of the gathering at which more than 100 Heads of State and Government, along with thousands of parliamentarians, mayors, UN officials, chief executive officers and civil society leaders will shape new policies to promote prosperity, reduce poverty and advance social equity and environmental protection.

On disasters, UN-Habitat has, as its primary aim, the sustainable development of cities, towns, and other human settlements. One key pillar of this aim is ensuring that cities are able to withstand and recover quickly from catastrophic events. In the context of UN-Habitat's World Urban Campaign, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has its own Making Cities Resilient Campaign which addresses issues of local governance and urban risk.

But the idea of urban resilience refers to the ability of any urban system, regardless of size, culture, demography or geography, to withstand and recover from disasters. To date, no such means of calibrating urban resilience has been developed, leaving city and town administrations understanding only what their inherent vulnerabilities may be, and not their capacity for resilience.

UN-Habitat's new Urban Resilience Indexing Programme launched in Rio de Janeiro will develop new standards for measuring and scaling a city's resilience to natural, environmental, social and economic crises, and provide tools, training and support to achieving them.