A new ‘World Disasters Report’ by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies looks at the urban risks faced by the poorest in our societies. Over 25 per cent of the world’s urban population is now estimated to live in the most basic and informal of dwellings, in the slums and shanty towns of cities. This means that almost 1 billion people face disease, malnutrition, illiteracy, crime and natural disasters in degrading and harsh urban environments. And despite the best efforts of countries working to meet the Millennium Development Goal for better shelter, this number is growing at a rate of 10 million per year.
Urbanization can be a force for good, as better resources are available in a defined area. And with good urban governance, the risk from disease and natural disasters can be reduced. But all too often, as the poor migrate to the cities in search of work, they settle in slums and informal settlements which offer none of these benefits. And overcrowding leads to conditions similar to those found in the 19th century cities of Europe. In squalid slums and shanties, children are the ones most at risk from precarious sanitary and health conditions.
But as well as their basic human needs not being met, slum and shanty dwellers are most at risk from natural disasters such as cyclones, floods and earthquakes. 2010 saw two of the worst earthquakes in Southern America in recent times. An 8.8 magnitude quake hit Chile. Because of the country’s wealthier status and well-constructed buildings, the loss of life was counted in the hundreds. However, when an earthquake of lesser magnitude struck Port-au-Prince in Haiti, over 200,000 deaths were recorded. Some of the difference in the death toll can be explained by the greater concentration of people in Port-au-Prince. (Designed to accommodate around 250,000 people, the last official census of the capital in 2003 recorded the population at 700,000 and the real number of people living there was almost three times higher, at 2 million.) But the greater death toll in Haiti can also be explained by the poor quality of housing and infrastructure and the level of preparedness for such a disaster.
This is why everyone involved in overseeing the reconstruction of Haiti is keen to see that the capital is rebuilt in such a way, that another earthquake would not be able to cause the same level of tragedy. The international humanitarian community and the World Bank want to restore infrastructure that will prove safe and housing which will offer better conditions for the capital’s residents. They do not want to see a return to the slums, which housed nearly three-quarters of the city’s population before the quake.
Much of the success of reconstruction and recovery will depend on involving the Haitian people themselves. And planners will need to realise that many people will want to return to their home sites, which are located close to potential work. But those who return to the demolished capital must be helped to rebuild homes in a safe and organised way. This is why a spokesperson for the World Bank has warned that there will be no quick fix for reconstructing Haiti and it may take several years before all the people affected by the quake are re-housed. Some say this will take five years, others 25 years. But if it leads to a better Port-au-Prince, with safe housing, proper sanitation and services for all, the long wait will be worth it.