Category: Disaster Risk Reduction

Improving flood response & recovery efforts with Earth observation

Improving flood response & recovery efforts with Earth observation

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

In the US, close partnerships between National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), United States Geological Survey (USGS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) help improve flood response and recovery when disasters strike. Earth observation data from NASA satellites offer invaluable information that can guide disaster aid in affected communities by providing products tailored to the needs of the respective agency. Such collaborations have helped thousands of people recover from flood disasters.

Louisiana’s historic flood

In 2016, Louisiana was battered by a 500-year deluge that led its governor to declare a state of emergency. The most severely affected areas received totals 61cm of rain with peaks of almost 80cm in Watson, near Baton Rouge. The record-breaking rainfall began on August 12 and FEMA soon reached out to NASA with a request to assess the potential disaster that was developing.

Using the Global Flood Monitoring System (GFMS), which uses data from the Global Precipitation Measurement satellite mission, NASA provided FEMA numbers about the potential for flooding and predictions of inundation for the coming days. USGS also activated the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters to access additional satellite imagery. Using all these data, experts at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) were able to compare before and after images of affected areas. Soon, FEMA had flood extent and flood proxy maps thanks to validation from aerial imagery from NOAA and water marks from USGS.

Speaking to NASA Glen Russell, remote sensing coordinator at FEMA, said “We estimated that Louisiana would have about 27,000 damaged homes, but it was through the acquisition of SAR data [synthetic aperture radar] and other remotely sensed data that we were able to see that that was a much larger impact than we had forecast.” It was thanks to the combination of remotely sensed data that FEMA decided to increase the resources they had sent to Louisiana, helping many families find shelters and new homes.

2017’s record-breaking hurricane season

Last year saw several major deadly and destructive hurricanes in the Atlantic basin. Six of the 17 storms developed into major hurricanes, hurricanes with a Saffir-Simpson scale category of 3 or higher. In August and September, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria set all kinds of records during a hurricane season that produced both the highest total accumulated cyclone energy on record and the highest number of major hurricanes since 2005.

During this challenging time, USGS provided large amounts of remotely sensed data at no cost through its Hazard Data Distribution System (HDDS) to analyse the extent, severity, and evolution of major hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. USGS staff worked around the clock keeping the portal up to date. Over 15,000 images were downloaded and requests came from 48 government agencies, including the US Senate, Department of Homeland Security, and the Centers for Disease Control. FEMA used HDDS data about roads and infrastructure in Houston to direct rescue efforts during Hurricane Harvey.

The access to such high-quality data in a fast and uncomplicated manner has made it possible to produce and distribute maps that help disaster management authorities make decisions and prove invaluable during rescue efforts.

Cover photo by US Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Leake (CC BY 2.0): Flooding and devastation in Baton Rouge, LA on Aug. 15, 2016.
Using ‘foresight’ to mobilise joint action in climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction

Using ‘foresight’ to mobilise joint action in climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

The European research project PLACARD (PLAtform for Climate Adaptation and Risk reDuction) has released a new report exploring how foresight can help integrate climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR).

The PLACARD project aims to establish a coordination and knowledge exchange platform to support the dialogue between the CCA and DRR communities. As part of that effort, this new report promotes the cooperative use of foresight methods to improve the integration of CCA and DRR in research, policy, and practice.

Figure 1: Schematic representation showing how CCA and DRR overlap. (Source: PLACARD)

Foresight is described as a “systematic, participatory, future intelligence gathering and medium- to long-term vision-building process to inform present-day decisions and mobilise joint actions.”

It helps decision-makers explore and anticipate future developments through a range of forward-looking approaches. It is a process to think about, debate and shape the future in a participatory, inclusive, and action-oriented manner exploring common long-term visions, and desired future conditions.

Figure 2: The multiple roles of foresight (Source: PLACARD based on JRC For-LEARN)

While they often might not be explicitly called that, foresight methods are already commonly used in CCA and DRR, for example the Adaptation Pathways approach, which presents “a sequence of possible actions after a tipping point,” and offers a series of ‘pathways’ in the form of adaptation or decision trees. Another very common practice is the SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats analysis), which helps categorise internal and external factors that might influence organisations. However, these methods are usually applied to either DRR or CCA rather than using them as a mechanism to integrate the two, which is what PLACARD’s new report proposes.

Given that both communities are used to the methods, the aim would be to encourage the use of foresight to look both at DRR and CCA together. As the authors explain, “for DRR this would imply the consideration of a longer time horizon and more attention to preventive responses, for CCA it would stimulate the consideration of the relevance of long-term changes for short-term changes and weather events which are more relevant for policy and practice.”

PLACARD identifies a number of ways in which foresight might improve future-thinking in a joint CCA-DRR policy context:

  • Enhance the effectiveness of participatory processes, cooperation and dialogue
  • Produce salient knowledge and capacity building that is relevant for future decision making and policy support
  • Facilitate the understanding of issues and concepts such as complexity, uncertainty, non-linearity, wildcards and surprises
  • Generate levers that build flexibility into policy measures and across policy areas
  • Address different time scales simultaneously, for example, connect long-term CCA prevention with short-term DRR preparedness
  • Be used in the context of trust building and the development of shared values
  • Allow for the use of a holistic perspective in connecting different policy areas.

This report summarises PLACARD’s initial work on foresight and will be followed up by a series of webinars and workshops in 2018 which will help develop and identify more specific foresight methods to integrate CCA and DRR.

Find out more about the report in PLACARD’s website and download the full document by clicking here.

PLACARD is funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research & innovation programme. Grant agreement No. 653255

Cover photo by Peter Kasprzyk on Unsplash.


How Texas is ‘building back better’ from Hurricane Harvey

How Texas is ‘building back better’ from Hurricane Harvey

By Nicole Errett, University of Washington

For most Americans, the one-two punch of last fall’s hurricanes is ancient history. But hard-hit communities in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean are still rebuilding.

I recently traveled with public health students from the University of Washington to southeast Texas, where the impacts of Hurricane Harvey last August are still felt today. With support from the Natural Hazards Center’s Quick Response Grant Program, we wanted to understand how disaster recovery strategies can create long-term opportunities to promote healthy communities.

Through interviews with local health officials, we learned how Hurricane Harvey is still affecting many residents. As we often see during natural disasters, Harvey amplified pre-existing health and social stresses and inequities.

For example, greater Houston had only a paltry pre-storm supply of affordable housing. Now buyers and renters are competing to secure undamaged units. We heard about families who were living in homes with toxic mold because they couldn’t afford to leave, and concerns that rising prices would drive people out on the street or force them to move to other cities and states. However, we also saw signs that communities were using Hurricane Harvey to springboard efforts to address persistent housing problems.

Flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas, August 31, 2017. Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Martinez, Air National Guard

The default response after a major disaster is often to rebuild as quickly as possible. This typically means replicating what existed before the storm. But why not build back in a way that corrects long-standing problems?

Major disasters like Hurricane Harvey often bring influxes of resources and attention to communities that are struggling with health and social challenges. In a 2015 report, the Institute of Medicine found that many communities fail to fully leverage recovery resources to address pre-existing issues, such as access to health care.

The report urged communities to consider short- and long-term health impacts of their recovery decisions, known as a “health in all policies” approach to recovery. This approach recognizes that health is connected to many other issues, including transportation, social networks and housing. By thinking about the health impacts of recovery strategies, municipal leaders can rebuild in a way that promotes stronger and more resilient communities.

For example, co-locating mental health professionals at sites where people are signing up for FEMA aid can help more residents get counseling and support. In the long term, decisions about land use in badly damaged neighborhoods can create spaces where people can exercise and socialize, which helps them to lead healthier and happier lives.

Planning for disasters should include identifying those most likely to need help. Jill Carlson, CC BY 2.0

Leveraging local expertise to build back better

The idea of incorporating health in all policies may sound sensible, but putting it into action after a hurricane, wildfire or tornado strike is easier said than done. As a former emergency manager in Baltimore, I know that working conditions after disasters are fast-paced and often chaotic. Communities are under political and social pressure to recover quickly, and health may not be at the top of their agendas.

Advance planning for recovery is important. And involving people who understand challenges to community health and well-being is essential. Local health departments, as well as community- and faith-based organizations, are often connected to at-risk populations. Involving these organizations in recovery planning and implementation can inform an approach that promotes community health and well-being. For example, they can identify opportunities to use recovery resources to meet pre-existing housing needs, or direct case management services to families that are already struggling.

Building healthier post-Harvey

Harvey caused US$125 billion in damages, making it the second-worst storm to strike the U.S. mainland after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The storm flooded one-third of Houston, displacing more than 30,000 people from their homes.

During our trip to Texas we saw that pre-disaster recovery planning was paying off. As an example, Fort Bend Recovers was established in Fort Bend County, which covers 885 square miles in the Houston metro area, after major flooding on Memorial Day in 2016.

In Harvey’s wake, plans developed by Fort Bend Recovers created a process for organizations, including local health and social services agencies, to rapidly reconvene to respond to community needs. Together they offered case management services, staffed mental health support lines, and convened emotional support groups. Such services can help individuals affected by the floods find housing and supplies, but also connect them with solutions for longer-term problems, such as finding affordable medical care.

Hurricane season 2018 is coming

In order to truly “build back better,” states and communities need to develop a plan for recovery in advance of the next disaster. Galveston County, on Texas’ Gulf Coast, is using its Hurricane Harvey recovery experience to formalize a Long Term Recovery Group that brings together the local health department and other community- and faith-based organizations to address community health needs. But we also heard about other communities that still don’t have a plan or mechanism for organizing recovery.

With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s New Connections Program, my research team is now reviewing state disaster recovery plans nationwide. We plan to identify whether and how states use the disaster recovery period to build back better. We hope to highlight recovery strategies that promote equitable access to affordable and safe housing, health care, and places and spaces that encourage healthy activity and foster social connections.

The ConversationAs climate change amplifies storms, floods and other extreme weather events, U.S. communities can expect more frequent and severe natural disasters in the years to come. By recognizing and planning for opportunities to build back better, they can make themselves more resilient against the next disaster.

Nicole Errett, Lecturer in Environmental and Occupational Health, University of Washington. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Cover photo by Vlad Busuioc on Unsplash: View of downtown Houston, TX.
Report finds investing in disaster resilience is a no-brainer

Report finds investing in disaster resilience is a no-brainer

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

A new report from the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) finds that every dollar spent on disaster resilience saves society six dollars.

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had declared 2017 the costliest year on record for weather and climate disasters. 16 extreme events had losses exceeding $1 billion and causing a total loss of $306 billion, three times more than in the record year 2005.

The NIBS study analysed results from 23 years of federal disaster mitigation grants provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), concluding that investing in disaster resilience saves six times more than it costs.

Additionally, the researchers looked at the benefits of designing new buildings to exceed 2015 International Codes (I-Codes) provisions and found that every extra dollar spent here saves four.

Both strategies together could prevent 600 deaths, 1 million nonfatal injuries, and 4000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the long-term.

The public-sector disaster resilience building strategies the project team studied include:

  • For flood resistance, acquiring or demolishing flood-prone buildings, especially single-family homes, manufactured homes and 2- to 4-family dwellings.
  • For wind resistance, adding hurricane shutters, tornado safe rooms and other common measures.
  • For fire resistance, replacing roofs, managing vegetation to reduce fuels and replacing wooden water tanks.

The strategies to exceed minimum requirements of the 2015 I-Codes include:

  • For flood resistance (to address riverine flooding and hurricane surge), building new homes higher than required by the 2015 I-Codes.
  • For resistance to hurricane winds, building new homes to comply with the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety FORTIFIED Home Hurricane standards.
  • For fire resistance in the wildland-urban interface, building new buildings to comply with the 2015 International Wildland-Urban Interface Code.

The report is accompanied by a white paper and addendum that outline public and private sector incentives for disaster resilience investment.

Download the full report by clicking here.

Cover photo by Troy Jarrell on Unsplash
Building back better: going beyond disaster recovery in the Caribbean

Building back better: going beyond disaster recovery in the Caribbean

By Laura Canevari

Last year the Caribbean experienced one of the most dramatic and devastating hurricane seasons on record. Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, broke records as one of just five hurricanes to have sustained wind speeds of above 185 mph. Irma spent 37 hours as a category 5 hurricane, the joint longest ever. The impacts were catastrophic in the Leeward islands, and left parts of Florida completely battered. Just a couple of weeks later, Hurricane Maria (also a Category 5) crossed the Windward Islands, leaving further devastation as it ripped through Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Dominica.

It was against this context that the Overseas Development Institute held its event “Building Back Better: A resilient Caribbean after the 2017 hurricanes.” The conference addressed four pillars for resilience building: Ecosystems and planning; Codes and practices; Economies; and Governance. Acclimatise’s John Firth and Laura Canevari were in attendance, providing insights from Acclimatise’s years of experience of resilience building in the region.

Firth reflected on the challenges and complexities of building resilient economies in small Caribbean states, noting the difficulties of attracting private sector investment and the low performance of international climate-related funds in the region. He reminded the audience that complex problems cannot be solved with simple solutions and that vulnerability is not a function of climate change per se, but of underlying drivers that increase the socio-ecological and economic resilience of Caribbean states.

As noted by Dr Twigg, Principal Research Fellow, Risk & Resilience of the ODI, during the open evening event that followed the table discussions, it is hard to think about long-term resilience in a post-disaster context. The next hurricane season is just five months away and countries have serious concerns of what is to come. Countries are far from recovery since the last disaster and are even further from being able to build a more resilient future.

There was much discussion about the approaches for financing and implementing post-disaster resilience building. The debate revolved around the tension between immediate disaster recovery and preparation for the next event, and developing processes to achieve long-term sustainability. As noted by several of the presenters, the damage caused by an extreme event can be sometimes two to three times higher than the annual GDP of the countries affected. This means that funds get diverted from other annual budgets such as education, transport or general development. Current objectives on development are already not being met due to current disasters, so thinking about how to build long term resilience is especially challenging.

However, disasters such as the ones caused by Irma and Maria open windows of opportunity for Caribbean countries. They offer an opportunity to re-think what a sustainable future looks like and what measures are needed to achieve it. In the case of Dominica, where the devastation of the island was almost total, the country has taken a decisive step towards a more resilient pathway. It announced its intention to be the “first climate resilient country in the world”. This is an exceptional pledge for a small country like Dominica and will require tough choices to be made on how to rebuild the communities, what industries to foster in the economy, and whose voices should be heard.

Dominica’s ambition shows that disasters can be used to generate political momentum to increase climate resilience. As this ODI report points out, some of the underlying vulnerabilities of Caribbean countries come from the legacy of their colonial history and stem from weak institutions, structures and economic pillars that accompanied it.

There was a palpable sense of urgency at the event, with the visible impacts of the hurricane season still affecting the lives of millions in the region. As Rt Hon. Patricia Scotland, Secretary General of Commonwealth Secretariat, noted, these disasters were not unexpected, and we can expect them to happen again.

Many things are needed to build a better, stronger Caribbean. Ronal Jackson, Executive Director at CDEMA pointed to the need for harmonisation of efforts, development and enforcement of better standards, incentives for mobilising the private sector and better use of information about risk as some of the elements that are needed to develop an enabling environment. One of the fundamental lessons of the day was the importance of engaging with affected communities in the process, to support and improve future self-recovery efforts. At the same time, immediate needs such as better stocking on warehousing facilities in the region and setting pre-arrangements with air and shipping companies that may help during disaster response are needed.

To access the briefing note, click here.

Download the conference report by clicking here.

Cover photo by US Customs Border Protection (public domain): Homes lay in ruin as seen from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations, Black Hawk during a flyover of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria September 23, 2017. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Kris Grogan.
Puerto Rico’s brutal way to hurricane recovery

Puerto Rico’s brutal way to hurricane recovery

By Lauren Lluveras, University of Texas at Austin

The United States had already seen its share of disasters, from back-to-back hurricanes that devastated Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands to roaring wildfires in the West. Then, after battering the rest of the Caribbean, Hurricane Maria left the island of Puerto Rico facing a humanitarian crisis. About a dozen people died in the Sept. 21 storm and the island was plunged into darkness. Now, some 3.4 million Puerto Ricans – which is to say, 3.4 million American citizens – are confronting life without electricity, gas, cellular service and, in many cases, a home.

After a decade of fiscal decline and a May 2017 bankruptcy, Puerto Rico has become exceptionally vulnerable to disasters like Maria. As both a policy analyst and the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, I’m concerned about how austerity-related reforms are now threatening the survival of not just my family there but everyone on the island. Though food insecurity, poor health care and resource-starved public transit all predate the hurricane, the result of both damaging U.S. policy and deepening financial crisis, these three problems will dramatically complicate Puerto Rico’s recovery.

Food insecurity

Because Puerto Rico imports over 85 percent of its food, food security on the island has always been fragile. The U.S. territory has been rationing supplies since Hurricane Irma in early September, but according to Puerto Rico’s former secretary of agriculture, it may have just one month’s worth of food on hand.

Puerto Rico’s main port reopened Sept. 23, allowing 11 ships to begin arriving with aid and resources, including clean water and food. Even so, distributing supplies across the 3,515-square-mile island will prove difficult on roadways damaged by flooding, debris and downed power lines.

Puerto Rico’s food supply is also uncertain given that several islands from which it imports food, including the Dominican Republic, Dominica and St. Martin, were also hit hard. And if the island goes without power for up to six months, the shelf life of the meat, vegetables, fruit and other staples of the traditionally fresh Puerto Rican diet will be awfully short.

This is the U.S. territory’s second food shortage in recent years. When a Puerto Rico-bound cargo vessel, El Faro, sank during Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, residents spent months in strife as the government struggled to develop a plan that ensured everyone had enough to eat.

Prior to World War II, Puerto Rico actually had an agricultural economy, producing and exporting sugar cane, tobacco and citrus fruits. But, post-war industrialization and growing stigma around farm work led to a downturn. Today, the island can’t feed its populace or compete with developed countries’ agribusiness and cheap prices.

In response, Puerto Rico has made an effort to grow domestic food production, which has increased 24 percent in the past five years. But Maria’s winds and floodwaters demolished these gains in bananas, plantains, coffee, dairy and corn production. Roughly 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s crop value just vanished over night, a loss of approximately US$780 million.

Poor health care

Puerto Rico had poor health care before Hurricanes Irma and Maria, but the storms will exacerbate this desperate situation, too. Ravaged by austerity, hospitals and other health care facilities saw their budgets cut by 15 percent from 2011 to 2015. Countless public clinics across the island closed during the past year, while four hospitals have filed for bankruptcy.

The island is also short on health care professionals, with 72 percent of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities deemed “medically underserved.”

This deficient system will face grave challenges in providing medical care to Puerto Ricans injured during and after the storm. Serious cuts and broken bones are extremely common following hurricanes, as are heat-related and infectious illnesses.

Loss of power may also lead to the worsening of illnesses for residents with such chronic conditions as diabetes, heart disease, psychiatric disorders and HIV whose medications require refrigeration. My own abuela (grandmother), a diabetic who began having mild cardiac episodes last year, is one Puerto Rican among thousands in this situation.

These domestic barriers to medical care are magnified by the ongoing debate around health care in the U.S. Even though Puerto Rico residents are more likely to be poor, elderly and diagnosed with a chronic illness than the general population, caps to Medicaid reimbursements have forced several hospitals on the island to cut services, close wings, leave positions unfilled and reduce employee hours and pay.

In the wake of this natural disaster, experts expect Puerto Rico’s hospitals to be overburdened, especially in San Juan and other metropolitan areas, where most medical facilities are located. In recent days, Gov. Ricardo Roselló has resorted to retweeting information about which hospitals are open and receiving patients.

Transportation shortages

Many Puerto Ricans will not be able to reach help, though. Upwards of 45 percent of the population lives in poverty and an estimated 35,000 riders depend daily on public transit to get around.

With a limited budget, an aging infrastructure and too few vehicles to support the island’s population, however, the transit authority has been struggling to meet needs. The agency underwent austerity-related budget cuts in 2015, operating at a deficit until, finally, in May 2017, it filed for bankruptcy.

This history has complicated evacuation efforts. Locals were puzzled at the “leave or die” warnings sent to Isabela residents on Sept. 23 when a large crack in the Guajataca dam threatened to flood surrounding areas. How, exactly, were they supposed to leave? And how could they get out on roadways long since rendered impassable?

As rescue and recovery efforts continue, transportation shortages have effectively left many residents reachable only by helicopter.

People across the island are already suffering the consequences. One family – Irees Gonzalez Collazo, 74, and her two sisters, Carmen, 73, and Sara, 72, of Utaudo municipality – exemplifies the cascading effect of this tragedy. All three women had immobilizing health complications and, unable to evacuate, were killed on Sept. 24 when a mudslide buried the home where they rested.

An American humanitarian crisis

If the situation in Puerto Rico seems dire, that’s because it is. People on the island will face seemingly insurmountable problems in nearly every aspect of their lives for months to come.

The Trump administration, which has thus far demonstrated a notable lack of concern for the island, could provide some urgent disaster relief by responding Gov. Rosselló’s request for increased aid for law enforcement and transportation, among other basic needs.

The U.S. Congress could also play a role in the territory’s longer-term recovery. Increasing the island’s Medicaid funding, for example, would save lives in this critical time and free up some of the territory’s scarce funds for other purposes.

While FEMA picked up the pace of aid five days after the storm, few Puerto Ricans anticipate that they’ll see the kind of “historic” federal disaster relief sent to Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

The ConversationFortunately, Puerto Rico has a culture of resilience. Since the storm, residents have stepped up to help, feed and shelter one another. If the U.S. federal government won’t save Puerto Rico, we Puerto Ricans will.

Lauren Lluveras, Post Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, University of Texas at Austin
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
 Puerto Rico National Guard photo by Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos: Puerto Rican residents walk in flooded streets in Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 22, 2017, following Hurricane Maria.
From floods to disease, disaster risk rises in surging African cities

From floods to disease, disaster risk rises in surging African cities

By Laurie Goering, Thomas Reuters Foundation

Residents of Karonga, a lakeside city of about 60,000 in northern Malawi, face no shortage of risks. Flooding is an annual problem that’s worsening with climate change and poor maintenance of the channels that carry out the excess water. Only 17 percent of households have piped water, and half of people use water tainted with sewage, leading to cholera and other disease deaths. But the worst challenge facing the fast-growing city – which records everything from crocodile attack to sexual assault as regular problems – is that there’s no real city government.

Instead, the community operates under the authority of an outdated rural council that is “lacking in transparency and unable to cope with the complex nature of Karonga urban life”, according to a report by Urban Africa Risk Knowledge, a British aid-funded programme focused on helping fast-urbanising sub-Saharan Africa reduce its growing risks. “There are no systems present in small centres” like Karonga, said Mtafu Manda, a researcher with Malawi’s Mzuzu University and the lead author of the report. “Or if they exist, it is only on paper.”

Disaster risks are arguably rising faster in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else, said Arabella Fraser, a risk and resilience researcher at the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI). That’s in part the result of surging urban populations, a quickening pace of climate-related problems – such as flooding and drought – and an inability to beat back those risks because of poverty, poor data, lack of training and badly run government, she said at a discussion held at ODI on Thursday. But plenty of ideas are emerging about how growing African cities can cut their risks.

Among them: organise slum dwellers to improve the infrastructure or simply sort out which risks are the key ones, and focus on those first, experts at the discussion said. These days, “one of the most difficult jobs in the world is being an African mayor,” said Meggan Spires of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), which is based in Cape Town. “The challenges are vast, complex and immediate, and many are day to day,” said Spires, who formerly worked on climate change issues for the South African city of Durban. Finding time to deal with demands to be proactive and work toward greater sustainability – in line with international agreements like the Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Agreement on climate change – is a heavy burden, she said.

One thing that can help, she said, is ensuring that efforts to build urban resilience are not just short-term, donor-funded projects but are based on community demand and then built into city plans, often with innovative funding. Donors aiming to improve resilience in Africa need to “be humble and recognise that Africans know their cities best. We should listen to them rather than imposing solutions on them.”

Turning to the slums

One way to get effective change underway is to harness organisations of slum dwellers, who make up large parts of the population in many African cities, said David Satterthwaite, an urban specialist with the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development. About 18 slum dweller federations have formed in Africa, with about 15 of them collecting data door to door on everything from healthcare to schools, drainage to eviction threats.

Satterthwaite called it “an information base that provides a new possibility for local governments…to form, drive and implement new risk-reduction efforts.” One thing that’s clear from data already collected in cities such as Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam, for instance, is that health threats kill many more people each year than floods, even though residents see those as the biggest risk, he said. That means investments in things like sanitation systems and clean water may have the biggest payoff – though getting funding can be tough when donors focus on climate change adaptation or disaster risk reduction efforts, Satterthwaite said.

Manda, of Malawi, said keeping politics in mind is also key to making progress in Africa’s cities – and small cities have the toughest challenges of all, he said. Political leaders “don’t think about the small towns, partially because they don’t live there but also because they want to benefit from the chaos”, he said. “When there is a disaster, when they go there as some kind of saviour, they are seen to be very good,” he said. “And because of that, the risks in these small towns will escalate.”


Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Credit: Zilient, an initiative of The Rockefeller Foundation, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Blue State Digital and OnFrontiers. All rights reserved. Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit
Cover photo by Paul Saad (CC BY  NC-ND 2.0): Durban, South Africa.
What Freetown’s mudslide teaches us about urban climate resilience

What Freetown’s mudslide teaches us about urban climate resilience

By Caroline Fouvet

Floods can have large-scale and devastating consequences. The mudslide that happened in Freetown, Sierra Leone, several weeks ago is a striking example of urban devastation. Over 1,000 people lost their life after days of torrential rains collapsed a hillside in Regent, 15 miles east of Freetown. In August, Sierra Leone received as much rainfall as Canada does in a year. Exploring the causes of this tragedy provides a basis to grasp the challenges posed by rapid urbanisation and climate change.

Sierra Leone belongs to Sub-Saharan Africa, which is one of the world’s fastest urbanising regions, triggered by strong population growth, 2.2% per year in Sierra Leone, and rural flight. In their search for better infrastructure and economic opportunities, Sierra Leoneans converge toward Freetown, where they try to settle. Consequently, capital cities such as Freetown are quickly sprawling, at the expense of their inhabitants’ safety.

However, the capital’s expansion leads to more constructions, which are often illegal and built on hazardous land that is vulnerable to weather impacts. Deforestation is an exacerbating factor for landslide risk, since trees and forests have an important role in preventing them, “not only by reinforcing and drying soils but also in directly obstructing smaller slides and rock falls”, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Moreover, the population was not prepared to face a mudslide, that had previously never occurred at this location.

As climate change will compound extreme weather events, vulnerable urban areas are increasingly exposed. In developing countries, urban resilience and risk management measures are necessary to avoid wider socioeconomic inequalities. In Freetown for instance, wealthier residents can afford to move to higher altitudes while already economically deprived inhabitants are left exposed to the floods’ consequences.

Preparing cities to extreme weather events would enable to avoid large-scale catastrophes like the one that struck Freetown this summer. The Mayors’ Task Force on Climate Change suggests several leads on this issue, and highlights that local governments “play a vital role in financing and managing basic infrastructure”, and should mainstream risk reduction into  urban  management. Early warning and evacuation procedures for example should be implemented and could drastically lower the number of casualties.

 Cover photo by David Hond (CC BY 2.0): Aerial view of Freetown, Sierra Leone, a helicopter expedition to Lungii airport, over the Freetown Harbour.
Why social media apps should be in your disaster kit

Why social media apps should be in your disaster kit

By Daniel P. Aldrich, Northeastern University and Courtney M. Page, Northeastern University

With floodwaters at four feet and rising, a family in Houston, Texas abandoned their possessions and scrambled to their roof during Hurricane Harvey to sit with their pets and await rescue. Unable to reach first responders through 911 and with no one visible nearby, they used their cellphones to send out a call for help through a social media application called Nextdoor.

Within an hour a neighbor arrived in an empty canoe large enough to carry the family and their pets to safety. Thanks to a collaboration with Nextdoor, we learned of this and hundreds of similar rescues across Harvey’s path.

This story illustrates the power of systems like Nextdoor, an app designed to make communication between neighbors easy. Survivors in Houston have been using social media platforms such as Facebook, Nextdoor and Twitter to connect to rescuers, organize food and medical supplies, and find places for people to stay.

These stories support our findings showing that social ties can save lives during disasters. They demonstrate why social media platforms should have pride of place among our preparations for and initial assessments of disaster damage.

When first responders are out of reach

Everyone knows that they should have batteries and three days of water and food on hand as extreme weather events roll through. But in our view, friends and social media platforms reachable by phone are equally important, because they could be lifesavers.

Many people assume that standard emergency services – such as the 911 system, police, firefighters and FEMA – will rescue them from disasters. While these are critical services during normal times, they can become literally and figuratively swamped during major hurricanes and floods, as we saw in Houston during Harvey. Firefighters and police officers cannot respond to every phone call. In some cases, emergency call response centers have shut down or have become unreachable because of damaged communications systems.

In past disasters around the world, our research has shown that the actual first responders in the immediate aftermath have often been neighbors, family and friends. Under such conditions, social ties – the connections to our friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances – can save our lives, mitigate the damage from storms like Irma and Harvey and fast-track recovery.

Neighbors help each other find safety in the wake of Hurricane Harvey

People to lean on

We know from studies of many disasters around the world that tighter connections help vulnerable people get through what can be lethal conditions. Neighbors can be a first line of defense, as we saw in Houston when neighbors formed a human chain to block floodwaters while others guided a woman in labor to the bed of a dump truck (the only vehicle available) and delivered her to a local hospital.

While we are constantly bombarded with information from television, radio and newspapers – especially when a major storm is approaching – we tend to act on information that we trust. The governor of Florida has urged residents in Irma’s path to evacuate, but for many Floridians, hearing the same message from relatives or friends may be what triggers action.

After disasters end and recovery begins, social ties can help keep us anchored to a home or business. Victims may face long waits for insurance payouts, if they are lucky enough to have insurance, or have to make decisions about restoring homes and businesses in disaster areas. They also must confront the psychological challenge of returning to places associated with hurt and loss. Having a circle of friends and neighbors can make them more likely to return and mitigate some of the trauma they have experienced.

Apps prove their worth

Social media is a tremendous resource for harnessing social networks and putting them to work during and after disasters. Facebook and Nextdoor have both demonstrated their usefulness during recent catastrophes. A recent study found that following the 2014 Napa Valley earthquake, online engagement and utilization of social media platforms for good occurred in communities with higher levels of social cohesion. We believe that individuals who are socially active on the ground – volunteering, helping neighbors, giving blood – are similarly active through social media.

In Houston, members have used Nextdoor to share prayers and information on road closures, obtain medical care and protect homes from looting. Local agencies including the Harris and Houston County emergency management offices, Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department have used Nextdoor to post mandatory evacuation orders, links to flood maps, lists of open shelters, instructions on connecting with first responders for rescues if needed and calls for volunteers with boats to help individuals who are stranded.

Now Florida residents are using Nextdoor to encourage people to reach out to neighbors, especially the elderly and infirm, discuss evacuation plans and find stores that still have supplies. Nearly 50 agencies have used Nextdoor to share information on preparing for supply shortages, rain, storm surges and high winds.

On September 6, Facebook activated its Safety Check feature for Hurricane Irma, allowing its members in her path to indicate if they need help and enabling users to check on friends’ and relatives’ status. To use Safety Check, start here.

The ConversationIf you’re in the path of a hurricane, of course you should move to high ground, bring batteries and hunker down in a safe location with food and water. But don’t forget your phone, and consider using Nextdoor and Facebook through the storm and recovery. Even if you can’t see them, you’re surrounded by a community that cares.


Daniel P. Aldrich, Professor of Political Science, Public Policy and Urban Affairs and Director, Security and Resilience Program, Northeastern University and Courtney M. Page, Ph.D. Candidate, Northeastern University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Cover photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash.
Floods spearhead disaster-related displacement worldwide

Floods spearhead disaster-related displacement worldwide

By Caroline Fouvet

In 2017, flooding has so far been the main disaster to cause large-scale displacement of populations. Cyclones, typhoons and torrential rains forced 4.5 million people out of their home, with over two million people having to flee as a direct result of devastating flood events. The situation spreads across the globe, as the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) presents in a list of affected countries that range from China to Peru and the United States. Usually, high human and economic costs are also main consequences of floods. Looking at the vulnerabilities and resulting challenges, it appears that flood-induced displacements are linked to various factors and raise new legal and health concerns.

First, the occurrence of seasonal weather events leading to floods, such as monsoons, depends on the location of some countries. This, at least partly, explains why almost half of the displacements due to natural disasters took place in East Asia according to IDMC. Developed countries in the northern hemisphere aren’t spared either by those phenomena, as the current hurricane season in the US is showing, but also back in 2005 when Katrina wreaked havoc.

In addition to seasonal events, the location of low-lying regions increases their vulnerability to flooding resulting from storm surges or overflowing rivers. In Peru for instance, where 293,000 were displaced this year following record rainfalls, about half a million people live in flood plains. This makes the population even more at-risk of being forced out of their dwelling.

As climate change makes extreme weather events even more powerful and wetter, people living in such areas are likely to be more exposed to flooding and, without increased resilience measures, to be permanently displaced.

IDMC, 2017:

Socioeconomic vulnerabilities also factor in when assessing a population’s risk of being displaced due to floods. High population density, inadequate infrastructure and lack of access to basic services put people in an even more precarious situation when flooding occurs. As poorest communities are often located in disaster-prone areas, given that they often cannot afford safer housing in more expensive zones, they are the main victims of floods and forced to relocate to similarly exposed places. Moreover, floods impact on vital economic sectors such as tourism, agriculture or fisheries and can pull out people from their place of residency as they lose their livelihoods. In Sri Lanka, the Food and Agriculture Organization already raised the alarm on this year’s flood impact on rice production, which is expected to drop by almost 40%.

As flooding pushes people far from their home, whether on a temporary or permanent basis, what are the implications and upcoming challenges to be faced? It seems that in a first time, new legal matters are to be considered since internally displaced people (IDP) currently do not benefit from an official status. The case of IDPs is often discussed in conflict situations but “disaster IDPs” also need a wider legal acknowledgement to guarantee their human rights and decent living conditions within the borders of their country.

Besides legal issues, the health of displaced people is likely to draw broader scrutiny as research shows that displacements provoked by natural disasters, in particular flooding, directly impacts mental health. According to a study, “housing is important to mental health and unsatisfactory living conditions could contribute to psychological stress and increase the likelihood of mental health disorders”. Early warning systems would alleviate the shock of flood-triggered displacements and have a positive impact on people’s long-term mental health.

Compounded by climate change, disasters resulting in large-scale flooding will continue to occurr regularly. Both developing and developed countries will be affected, thus amplifying internal population displacements. Addressing their vulnerabilities and the arising challenges could be a starting point to increase their resilience and face the consequences of environmental migration.

Cover photo by Dean Moriarty/Pixabay (public domain): Children rowing a boat through flooded streets in Thailand.