Experts sound alarm over disaster planning

Update: October, 07/2011 - 11:48

WASHINGTON – The explosive growth of urban areas is resulting in greater damage and more deaths from natural disasters than ever before, experts have warned, calling for better planning and safer housing.

Cities now account for half the world's population and are growing faster than their populations can be counted, they said on Thursday, making them particularly vulnerable to earthquakes, floods and other disasters, especially in poor countries.

"Our investment in risk-reduction preparedness should be wiser. It should not just be chasing the ambulance and responding again and again where something has gone wrong, but investing also in preparedness," said Maggie Stephenson, UN-HABITAT senior technical adviser for Haiti.

Stephenson spoke at a conference at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, devoted to the problems of urban recovery following natural disasters.

Illustrating the challenges, Haiti still has half a million people living in squalid tent cities nearly two years after a devastating earthquake that killed more than 225,000 people.

Stephenson acknowledged she was "horrified" at the slow pace of reconstruction in Haiti, which was already the poorest in the Americas before the quake.

She and other experts at the conference agreed that it was essential, and cheaper, to train the local population to rebuild rather than have outsiders do it.

"We need to train every single existing mason and every mango-seller that's going to become a mason," Stephenson stressed.

But in Haiti only 20,000 masons have been trained since the earthquake, 10 times less than in northern Pakistan after the massive 2005 quake there, she said.

In the past five years alone, more than 14 million people lost their homes to natural disasters. That can mean more than losing a shelter, said Habitat for Humanity chief executive Jonathan Reckford.

People who work from home can lose their livelihoods, while others lose access to health care, water, sanitation and places of worship, he said.

According to his Christian non-profit group, the number of urban residents worldwide living in areas vulnerable to earthquakes and cyclones will more than double from 680 million people in 2000 to 1.5 billion people by 2050.

"Reconstruction always begins the day after a disaster," he said.

"Our desire and our shared goal is to help families get back to work, back to school, lay that foundation to rebuild their lives."

But rebuilding with future disasters in mind is no easy task in urban areas, home to huge infrastructure issues, land tenure concerns and limited space on which to rebuild, he said. -- AFP