ISSUE BRIEF: The 21st Century Urban Disaster: More disasters, more devastating, more expensive, more complex – how are aid agencies responding?

Global Communities Releases Issue Brief on the Increasingly Complex Nature of Humanitarian Responses to Urban Disasters; Profiles innovative Katye Program

21st century urban disasterWashington, D.C.  – The 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan one year ago was the most expensive natural disaster in history, totaling nearly $235 billion in recovery costs.  It also signified a growing trend that is putting urban residents—primarily in low- and middle-income countries—most at risk for similar future disasters and highlights the increasingly complex nature of humanitarian responses to urban disasters. This is the topic explored in a new issue brief released today at American University, entitled The 21st Century Urban Disaster.

Courtney Brown, Director of the Office of Humanitarian Assistance at Global Communities and author of the issue brief, notes that “the growth of urban disasters – such as those in Port-au-Price, Sendai and Christchurch – are teaching the aid community that the disaster relief approaches of the past are no longer sufficient to meet the emergency needs of urban populations. The demographic and geographic conditions associated with urban disasters pose new complexities and challenges that must be addressed and integrated into future relief efforts.”  Brown was involved in the immediate relief efforts in Japan and Haiti and most recently has been focused on Global Communities' long term response efforts in Haiti and the Horn of Africa.

2008 marked the first time in history where urban populations outnumbered those in more rural areas. The United Nations’ Population Division projects that the world’s population growth in the next few decades will be seen disproportionately in urban areas, specifically those in low- and middle-income countries in Africa and Asia. In addition to increased urbanization, the number of disasters reported each year has tripled, from 100 in 1980 to more than 300 in 2000.

The issue brief details the evolving nature of humanitarian response and how humanitarian assistance differs in urban and rural contexts. These changes include the level at which response is targeted – from household to neighborhood – and the far more complex and inter-related nature of city-dwellers’ livelihoods and market access.

Global Communities is currently addressing these new challenges through a model that holistically meets the immediate and long-term needs of disaster-afflicted communities. In Haiti, Global Communities' Katye program, funded by USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, uses a neighborhood approach to support recovery by offering shelter and access to basic services, such as water and sanitation, while also incorporating long-term reconstruction goals. The issue brief includes a case study on this program.

The brief, now available for download here, further details the challenges associated with providing relief after an urban disaster and describe Global Communities' success in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.

Courtney Brown is Global Communities' Director of Humanitarian Assistance. Brown has managed relief programs that have ranged from shelter and water/sanitation/hygiene programs in northern Afghanistan to a livelihoods support programs in Sahelian Africa and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.  He has managed on-the-ground relief operations following the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the 2006 earthquake in Indonesia, the 2007 conflict in Darfur, the 2008 conflict in Georgia, the 2008 cyclone in Burma, the 2009 conflict in Pakistan, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the 2011 tsunami in Japan.  Over the past 12 years, Brown has responded to disasters in more than 15 countries through his work with UNHCR, USAID, and NGOs.