Urban survival reinvents disaster aid

The number of droughts, tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons and floods increased from 78 in 1970 to 348 in 2004. Introduce these numbers to urban growth and the results are terrifying, to put it lightly.

In 2008 the balance of the earth's geopolitical makeup tipped. For thousands of years the vast majority of people only knew their immediate family and neighbors. We worked on farms or in small villages. We knew how to independently sustain a life that, well, sustained us. And then the time came when our ancestors realized the riverbed wasn't looking so idyllic anymore.

While it would take thousands of years for the first dirty plastic bag to wash up onto shore, the point is: people started to congregate. It happened in Mesopotamia and Egypt, then in Greece and Rome, and later in Europe and the Americas. More recently, urban growth in Africa is at a peak high. Growth in Asia is so fast jaws are dropping.

Only a few years ago, according to the United Nations, the births and deaths expanding and diminishing our existence on earth finally tipped the scale. In 2008 the majority of people inhabited cities for the first time ever.

The number of droughts, tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons and floods increased from 78 in 1970 to 348 in 2004, according to the emergency events database maintained by the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.

Introduce these numbers to world population growth and the results are terrifying, to put it lightly.

SmartPlanet covered how to be an "urban survival master" a few weeks ago. But what about disaster aid? Traditionally designed for rural areas, how is disaster management changing in the face of accelerated global urbanization?

Larry Greenemeier of Scientific American spoke with Courtney Brown, director of humanitarian assistance at CHF International about reevaluating aid strategies for urban contexts. The Maryland-based aid organization operates in 25 countries worldwide and knows first-hand how important urban aid strategies are - especially for the fastest-growing urban areas in Africa and Asia. While United States disaster aid efforts have flailed miserably in recent years, countries in Africa and Asia are generally without the resources to respond adequately to a natural disaster.

Here are a two excerpts from the interview:

What is so different about families living in the city?

These assumptions about subsistence-oriented livelihoods don't hold in an urban setting, where most people live in apartment buildings or multifamily dwellings owned by someone else, and few families grow the food they eat. Urban livelihoods revolve around earning enough money to buy the things needed for survival, whether it's groceries at the local supermarket or medicine at the local pharmacy. The vulnerabilities in urban areas result from an interruption in income and price shocks that make crucial commodities unaffordable. We're seeing this in Yemen, where the cost of bread has increased 75 percent over the past nine months. All of a sudden the families that were buying bread from their local markets can't afford it anymore. There's still bread there to buy, but most people can't afford it.

In urban areas the idea is to provide a small amount of money to families within the first few days of a disaster so they can buy what they need. Then we focus on ways to put family members to work short term with day jobs. In Haiti we hired unskilled labor to remove rubble. So, in addition to clearing away rubble from disaster sites, we offered a way for families to generate income so they could go to the markets and buy the things they need.

Urbanization is not the only trend you are seeing in disaster management. How are you using technology to help deliver aid?

In a city, if the infrastructure is damaged by an earthquake or some other event, it can make the logistics of administering aid very challenging. But urban areas aren't the only ones that can create logistical nightmares. The current famine in the Horn of Africa illustrates logistical problems in the rural context. There nomadic families will often move from place to place with the hope of improving their situations and finding water and grasslands for their animals. But in places like Kenya this mobility makes them difficult to reach.

What they do have in Kenya is extensive cell phone coverage—two thirds of Kenyans have a cell phone, or at least a SIM card that they can plug into someone else's cell phone. For the past few years they have been using phone credits—basically air time—as a form of currency. If a family member needs money, [they can be sent] phone credits, which that family member can sell back to their local telecom provider for money or can trade at their local store for medicines, food or clothes.

Check out the full interview transcript here.

[via Scientific American; Scientific American]

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com