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The New Normal? Severe Weather Battering Cities



Flood in Congotown, Liberia
Heavily populated areas are becoming more vulnerable to the increasing disturbances of extreme weather and need to devise disaster preparedness plans. Here, flooding in Congotown, Liberia. WILLIAM ROSS/UN HABITAT

Latin America and the Caribbean have always faced the threat of hurricane intensely, but with new weather extremes related to climate change occurring amid growing urban populations, the lethal mix is bound to cause more damage and deaths every year. Urban planners are not even close to being prepared.

Consider the recent havoc that Hurricane Sandy caused along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, where billions of dollars in damages are still being assessed and people living in low-lying coastal regions have been displaced as yet another storm, a northeaster, arrived soon after.

Colombia, for instance, knows the experience of extreme weather’s effects on urban areas well: its end-of-year rainy season hit a record-breaking 90 percent of the country in 2010 with landslides and flooding. President Juan Manuel Santos declared a national emergency that November. A quick emergency response followed, but the rains continued for more than 15 months because of the residual cooling effects of la niña blasting in from the Pacific Ocean. By March 2012, la niña had affected more than 3.2 million people in the country.

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The United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Colombia says that given such recent weather patterns, it’s unlikely the seasonal rains – starting now – will be severe this year since a niña is not expected. But when another natural disaster comes, the communities hit the hardest will probably be urban shantytowns and slums.

“Most of the time you see the impact of natural disasters, of the rains, in the cities,” said Hector Latorre, communications specialist in the Bogotá office of the UN humanitarian affairs office. “The majority of the time, people that we visit are displaced people who have been affected by the conflict, living in the mountains.”

More than half the world’s population lives in urban areas, and by 2025, that amount will increase to two-thirds, presenting challenges to governments on how to cope with rising natural disasters on unprecedented scales in densely inhabited settings.

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In June, just before the  UN’s Rio +20 sustainability summit, 79 percent of cities worldwide reported differences in average rising temperatures or average rising sea levels, which they chalked up to climate change. New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was so incensed by the extent of Hurricane Sandy’s damage that he ended up endorsing Barack Obama for president just before the Nov. 6 election. Until then, Bloomberg, an Independent, had refused to back either presidential nominee.

Sandy wreaked havoc on the functioning of the UN at its New York headquarters, and Ban told the General Assembly that it is difficult to attribute any single storm, even a ferocious one, to climate change.

“But we all know this: extreme weather due to climate change is the new normal,” he said. Ban also urged nations meeting at global climate talks later this month in Doha, Qatar, to reach a legally binding agreement by 2015 to rein in the emissions of heat-trapping gases.

The UN, for its part, began an urban disaster risk campaign in 2010, with 68 percent of cities now reportedly developing plans to counter these impacts. Latin American cities lead the action, partly because of their long history of urbanization and the region’s status as the most urbanized continent in the world. About 80 percent of people in Latin America live in cities.

Yet governments worldwide are struggling to develop preparedness plans fast enough to match urbanization rates.

“There’s been considerable progress in the last 10 or 20 years, but climate change has traditionally been seen as just an environmental issue and not an urban planning one,” said David Dodman, a co-author of a UN and International Institute for Environment and Development September 2012 report on making cities resilient to disasters.

Less than 10 percent of international financing for climate change is going to urban areas, Rafael Tuts, the Nairobi-based chief of UN Habitat’s urban environmental planning branch, said.

UN Habitat, which addresses the needs of urban dwellers, offers a new online platform that lets people map and track cities with climate change projects. The agency is also developing an index that will measure urban resistance to natural disasters.

In August, the United Nations Development Program announced a financing increase for disaster risk reduction over the next five years, to $180 million from $130 million.

Connecting natural disasters and climate change responses to urbanization is a long-term challenge that requires a new way of thinking, Tut says.

“There has been of period of 20 years where this type of planning was not something that was taken seriously and that has led to very unsustainable patterns for urban development,” he said. “We need to rectify that, but that will take time.”

Earthquakes pose more challenges for densely populated areas. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the government of Dominican Republic, which sits on the same island, Hispaniola, approached a team of experts in urban design engineering and environmental sciences at the Earth Institute of Columbia University. Shifts in tectonic plates and rapidly growing urban populations, especially in informal settlements, are equally troubling for the Dominican Republic and for Haiti.

The team is still conducting research in the Dominican Republic to assess the specific risks earthquakes could place on urban zones and in touristy beach areas.

“There’s been a major shift there since the 1960s with many people moving from rural to urban areas to access jobs, and moving to cities on coastal line areas,” said Richard Gonzalez, a researcher with the Urban Design Lab, part of the Earth Institute and the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia. “In the past 28 years, natural disasters have cost the Dominican Republic about $3.3 billion.”

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Amy Lieberman is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She reports mostly on UN headquarters news when she is not working abroad. In the last several years, she has reported from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nepal and Thailand. Lieberman is a graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. For more information, go to

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