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Dominic Chavez / World Bank

Chapter 13.4 Managing urban risk

Urban disaster risk reduction: constraints and opportunities

Photo: Dominic Chavez / World Bank

13.4.1 Urban systems

Urban centres are complex socio-technical systems, made up of communities, institutions, the built environment, the natural environment or ecosystem, infrastructure (such as transport, communications, water, sewerage and power), services (such as healthcare, education, police and waste collection) and economic and social activities.+See J. da Silva, S. Kernaghan and A. Luque, ‘A Systems Approach to Meeting the Challenges of Urban Climate Change’, International Journal of Urban Sustainable Development, 4 (2), 2012, These different components of the overall system are linked and often depend upon one another (for example, hospitals and water pumping systems need electricity; people need transport to get to work and to access services), so that problems in one area have an impact elsewhere. They are also linked to resources, infrastructure and institutions outside town or city boundaries. Practical interventions to reduce urban risks and vulnerabilities that focus on just one aspect of the system may bring benefits, but their overall impact will be limited without addressing other aspects as well.

It is easier to assess individual components within an urban system (e.g. building quality, power supply lines) than to assess and understand their inter-dependencies and the overall resilience of that system. Towns and cities are a complicated combination of assets, systems and actions undertaken by institutional and community actors (the links between physical assets and human behaviour are often overlooked). Nevertheless, municipal authorities and other agencies need to have this big picture in mind if they are to act effectively, which is why attempts have been made to develop frameworks for viewing a resilient urban system as a whole (see Case Study 13.1: City resilience framework). Resilience thinking (see Chapter 1) is now being widely adopted as a tool for understanding and managing risks in towns and cities.

Case Study 13.1 City resilience framework

In partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, Arup International Development has developed a framework for use by planners, decision-makers and other stakeholders to arrive at a common understanding of city resilience. The framework is the result of an extensive review of existing research and guidance, together with fieldwork in six cities in Africa, Asia and the Americas. It identifies 12 key indicators that describe the fundamental attributes of a resilient city. The indicators fall into four categories: the health and wellbeing of individuals (people); infrastructure and environment (place); economy and society (organisation); and leadership and strategy (knowledge).

The 12 indicators are:

  1. Minimal human vulnerability: indicated by the extent to which everyone’s basic needs are met.
  2. Diverse livelihoods and employment: facilitated by access to finance, ability to accrue savings, skills training, business support and social welfare.
  3. Adequate safeguards to human life and health: relying on integrated health facilities and services, and responsive emergency services.
  4. Collective identity and mutual support: observed as active community engagement, strong social networks and social integration.
  5. Social stability and security: including law enforcement, crime prevention, justice and emergency management.
  6. Availability of financial resources and contingency funds: observed as sound financial management, diverse revenue streams, the ability to attract business investment, adequate investment and emergency funds.
  7. Reduced physical exposure and vulnerability: indicated by environmental stewardship, appropriate infrastructure, effective land use planning and enforcement of planning regulations.
  8. Continuity of critical services: indicated by diverse provision and active management, maintenance of ecosystems and infrastructure and contingency planning.
  9. Reliable communications and mobility: indicated by diverse and affordable multimodal transport systems, ICT networks and contingency planning.
  10. Effective leadership and management: involving government, businesses and civil society, and indicated by trusted individuals, multi-stakeholder consultation and evidence-based decision-making.
  11. Empowered stakeholders: indicated by education for all and access to up-to-date information and knowledge to enable people and organisations to take appropriate action.
  12. Integrated development planning: indicated by the presence of a city vision, an integrated development strategy and plans that are regularly reviewed and updated by cross-departmental working groups.

At the time of writing a much more detailed City Resilience Index was being developed, with an extensive list of qualitative and quantitative indicators.

Arup International Division/Rockefeller Foundation, City Resilience Framework (London: Ove Arup & Partners International, 2014),

Infrastructure is a key component in urban systems, particularly the critical infrastructure that delivers services such as water and sanitation, energy, communications and transport. Infrastructure needs to be protected against potential hazards by siting it in safer locations where possible and strengthening it structurally; contingency plans must also be in place in case of damage, disruption or failure of infrastructure during a disaster.

Box 13.2 Vulnerability of infrastructure and the built environment to hazards

Buildings and physical infrastructure which may be vulnerable to the effects of natural hazard events include:

  • Older residential buildings in densely populated areas that have been poorly maintained, altered or extended, or are overcrowded.
  • Buildings erected before adequate standards and controls were designed, or that have been built without observing standards and regulations.
  • Unplanned, ‘informal’ settlements in marginal, hazard-prone areas.
  • Modern buildings of poor design or construction quality.
  • Communication and control centres concentrated in one area.
  • Hospital facilities that are insufficient for treating large numbers of casualties or which may not be accessible in a disaster.
  • Schools and other community buildings that have been built to low construction standards or which cannot be used as emergency shelters.
  • Poorly designed or built roads, railways, bridges and viaducts, embankments and culverts, whose collapse could prevent access by emergency services, movement of relief supplies and evacuation of casualties.
  • Narrow streets that become blocked with debris and stalled traffic, also impeding emergency assistance.
  • Water mains that are liable to rupture, resulting in pollution and disease.
  • Sewers that flood, spreading disease.
  • Electrical supply lines and systems that are liable to failure.
  • Gas mains that rupture, with the risk of fires.
  • Industrial facilities that are damaged, leading to leaks of hazardous chemicals or fires and explosions.
Institution of Civil Engineers, Megacities: Reducing Vulnerability to Natural Disasters (London: Thomas Telford, 1995).

13.4.2 Governance and stakeholders

Collective action is needed for effective DRR in complex urban systems. Many different actors have important roles to play, including local and national government, civil society organisations, the private sector, community groups or associations and international funding agencies. In towns, there are often more official and other agencies of various kinds than in the countryside, and there is, accordingly, a more complex and diverse network of relationships between them. These bodies need to develop shared visions of the future and set priorities for action. Strategies and interventions in urban settings have to be planned in the context of the relationships (including power relationships) between the different actors involved. In addition, local and grassroots organisations and higher-level decision-making forums should be connected to one another. This can be challenging, especially where there is no tradition of community engagement, but a growing number of initiatives are demonstrating that it is possible (see Section 13.4.3: Local-level and community-based initiatives). Decentralisation policies can also give municipal governments the opportunity to develop their own DRR strategies (for example in regulating land tenure, land use and construction standards). However, this needs adequate policy and financial support from higher levels of government, which is lacking in many countries. Most municipal governments in low-income countries have very little investment capacity of their own.

City governments (municipal authorities, mayoral administrations, etc.) are the main actors in urban DRR, with a very wide range of responsibilities (see Table 13.1: The role of municipal governments in DRR). The private sector can also play an important part, particularly in the provision of infrastructure and structural mitigation measures, and businesses are more likely to invest in towns and cities that are active in minimising disaster risk. Community-level organisations and local NGOs may be involved across a wide range of DRR activities, although in practice organisations dedicated to disaster risk management tend to focus on smaller-scale interventions that are easier to implement, such as educating the public about risk, disaster preparedness and evacuation planning, search and rescue and other emergency response actions.

Table 13.1 The role of municipal governments in DRR

Built environment: • Setting and enforcing building codes
• Land use regulations and property registration
• Construction and maintenance of public buildings
• Urban planning and zoning
Infrastructure: • Piped water (including water treatment)
• Sanitation
• Drainage
• Roads, bridges, pavements
• Electricity
• Solid waste disposal
• Waste water treatment
Services: • Fire protection
• Public order, police, early warnings
• Waste collection
• Schools
• Health care and public health services
• Public transport and transport management
• Social welfare
• Emergency planning and response
Adapted from D. Dodman et al., Understanding the Nature and Scale of Urban Risk in Low- and Middle-income Countries and Its Implications for Humanitarian Preparedness, Planning and Response (London: IIED, 2013),

DRR needs the support of strong local leadership and political will, in the face of competing demands for capacity and resources. Continuity in leadership is also vital: in many towns, the high turnover of people in key leadership and technical positions has been identified as a major barrier to sustaining DRR programmes. Local-level activity must also be linked to town- or city-wide measures to improve services and mitigate the impact of hazards, making it particularly important to develop risk management partnerships between communities, grass-roots organisations, NGOs, municipal authorities and others (see Case Study 13.2: Integrated urban DRR). International organisations can also contribute through funding, technical support, advocacy and coalition-building (see Case Study 13.3: Making Cities Resilient Campaign).

Case Study 13.2 Integrated urban DRR

The city of Manizales in Colombia is a well-known example of urban development programming that integrates environmental and risk management. Manizales has been implementing this approach since the 1980s. The programme involves a wide range of stakeholders – local and regional government, the private sector, universities and community organisations – involved in discussing and devising plans for urban development. Coordination with national government is helped by Colombia’s long-running decentralisation programme, which transfers considerable responsibility and resources to lower administrative levels.

Municipal DRR actions include risk mapping, micro-zoning, setting and implementing building codes, relocating houses away from unsafe places, public education, community preparedness, research and institutional coordination. Observatories across the city monitor environmental conditions. There are tax reductions for people who take measures to protect their homes in areas at risk of floods and landslides, and the houses of low-income groups are covered by a city insurance scheme. An environmental tax on properties is reinvested in protecting infrastructure, disaster mitigation, public education and relocation.

J. Hardoy et al., ‘Local Disaster Risk Reduction in Latin American Urban Areas’, Environment & Urbanization, 23 (2), 2011.


Case Study 13.3 Making Cities Resilient Campaign

UNISDR’s Making Cities Resilient Campaign was launched in 2010 to encourage more effective local governance for urban risk reduction. It supports local action planning, learning and cooperation between cities. By 2012 more than 1,200 cities and towns worldwide had joined the campaign and a large number of initiatives had been launched. A detailed self-assessment tool has been developed to help city administrations and other stakeholders to monitor progress.

Urban centres are diverse, ranging from megacities (with populations of 10m or more) to small rural townships. Much of the attention being given to disaster risk in urban areas has concentrated on the problems of large cities. Here, the scale of the problems makes the involvement of municipal and even central governments particularly important. But it should not be forgotten that most of the world’s urban population lives in smaller towns and administrative centres, and it is in such places that most urban growth is taking place. Areas on the fringes of towns and cities (peri-urban areas) are also extensive and growing rapidly around the world, although this is often not in a planned or managed process and can involve expansion into hazardous locations. Smaller urban centres tend to have weaker municipal authorities and poor provision of infrastructure and services; they also lack capacity, technical skills and resources. On the other hand, it is often easier to address problems of disaster risk and vulnerability on a smaller scale.

13.4.3 Local-level and community-based initiatives

The preceding discussion suggests that options for reducing urban risk through local-level initiatives may be limited. It is true that only municipal and higher authorities can reduce pollution and other sources of risk on a significant scale, build and maintain critical infrastructure, set and enforce planning and building regulations, implement large-scale slum upgrading, manage mass evacuations and maintain emergency services. National governments set the legal and budgetary parameters within which local urban administrations operate, and local administrations depend on the financial and technical support they provide. The underlying socio-economic forces that make urban-dwellers vulnerable can only be addressed on a larger scale.

This does not mean that it is impossible to make a difference at a local level. Even small-scale interventions can have a meaningful impact on local risks and vulnerabilities. These interventions might be targeted at reducing specific risks, or they may be more general development actions to improve the built environment and strengthen local capacities. For example, low-cost technologies for putting up stand pipes and building latrines and drains have long been available and, with full community participation, extensive and durable water and sanitation systems can be installed (see Case Study 13.4: Community-based urban infrastructure). In areas regularly visited by floods, water pipes and pumps can be raised above anticipated water levels, latrines can be sited where they are less likely to be flooded, drains and sewers can be designed to cope with large volumes of water and regularly spaced manholes can give easy access to them if they need to be unblocked. Blocked drains and litter are a major cause of urban flooding and water contamination, but can be resolved through municipal and community action to clear and maintain them. Some activities, such as sorting household waste, can be managed relatively easily at community level, although ideally this should be as part of a larger-scale integrated waste management scheme.

Case Study 13.4 Community-based urban infrastructure

The Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) in Karachi, Pakistan, is well known internationally as an example of a large-scale, long-term initiative based on the skills and resources of the urban poor. Established in 1980 in Orangi, one of Karachi’s poorest districts and the city’s largest informal settlement, the OPP gave technical and organisational support to a community-based sanitation programme that sought to remove waste by helping residents build and maintain latrines and a network of underground sewers.

By 2008 the programme had reached 865,000 people (about 90% of Orangi’s informal housing). With the elimination of the old open sewers, infant mortality rates fell, moving around became easier and the cleaner open spaces in front of houses created safer play areas for children and space for social contact and recreation.

Although Orangi’s sloping terrain helped drainage and hence made construction of the sewerage system easier and cheaper than it would have been on flatter ground, the main reason for the initiative’s success was the OPP’s insistence on making community organisations the primary players, keeping the costs of the technology as low as possible and avoiding dependence on external funding.

OPP’s approach has spread to other settlements in Karachi and other cities in Pakistan. OPP has provided training and advice to municipal government and other projects. Projects are directed by community groups and use local labour and materials. Households and communities are responsible for raising the funds to invest in the work. OPP has lobbied successfully against proposals for donor-funded sewerage schemes, presenting lower-cost alternatives. OPP’s approach also influenced the development of a national sanitary policy adopted in 2006.

A. Zaidi, From the Lane to the City: The Impact of the Orangi Pilot Project’s Low Cost Sanitation Model (London: WaterAid, 2001),; G. McGranahan, Research Report: Community-driven Sanitation Improvement in Deprived Urban Neighbourhoods, 2013,

In poor neighbourhoods, especially where people do not have legal title to their property, houses and local infrastructure tend to be informal, and are often adapted to prevailing hazards. Many urban households and communities implement small-scale structural improvements to protect against flood water. Houses are put on raised plinths or, where this is too costly, doorsteps and house fronts are raised; concrete slabs or rubble and other landfill materials are used to create paths through standing water. Inside homes, there are shelves and raised platforms to store goods safely, and electricity connections are put at head height. In the wider community, low-lying land may be filled in to prevent waterlogging, footbridges may be built and evacuation routes created. Flooding can be curbed by planting trees and other vegetation to absorb rainwater; creating open spaces assists this. (See also Case Study 7.3: Living with floods and heatwaves in urban slums.)

Case Study 13.5 Flood response in an urban setting

An Action Contre la Faim (ACF) project in low-income settlements in Jakarta, Indonesia, set up a system of pillars joined by ropes along evacuation routes to help people wade through flood waters. This system also made it easier for volunteers to bring food and other relief assistance to people trapped in their houses. The ropes were checked and replaced before each rainy season. Loudspeakers were distributed to schools and these, together with existing loudspeakers in local mosques, were used to broadcast flood warnings.

C. Gaulin, Disaster Risk Management in Urban Areas: The Slums of Jakarta. Visit of the Kelurahans of Cipinang Besar Utara and Kampung Melayu (Paris: Action Contre La Faim, 2013).

Formal and informal social organisations exist in every part of a town or city where people live and work. But the notion of a ‘community’ may be quite different from that of rural areas, because in an urban district there is often a complex mix of very different social groups within a small area. The locus of organisation for local people may be their neighbourhood – the district where they live – rather than a social community. This presents problems for NGOs and other agencies trying to establish locally-based mitigation initiatives. The mutual suspicion that often exists between officials and people living in informal settlements adds to the difficulty. A further complication is that many of the urban poor have to travel long distances to work, restricting the time they have for community activities in their own neighbourhoods. Nevertheless, many communities are willing to undertake risk-reducing measures collectively where they are able to do so. The Orangi Pilot Project (Case Study 13.4) and other schemes inspired by it demonstrate that community-based action is possible on a large scale. Although community organisations are limited in what they can achieve in urban centres – they cannot implement planning regulations, manage land use or develop building codes – community action can be a basis for encouraging and supporting local authorities to act in these areas. Grassroots activism may also persuade local and higher levels of government, or other funding agencies, to invest more in DRR infrastructure or provide land in less hazardous locations to poor families.

Participatory initiatives (see Chapters 6 and 7) can help to break down barriers between social groups as well as identifying opportunities for local action. Community vulnerability analysis and action plans can be used in advocacy, and other actors – city government, NGOs, academic institutions – can be brought into urban action planning processes. There are indications that such approaches have galvanised community action in risk reduction and stimulated greater cooperation with officials (e.g. Case Study 13.6: Urban resilience planning by community organisations).

Case Study 13.6 Urban resilience planning by community organisations

Gorakhpur, a city of 700,000 people in north-east India, is prone to flooding and waterlogging, and many areas suffer from poor sewerage, sanitation and waste management and blocked drains. The city administration has limited capacity to coordinate and implement development and DRR programmes, and little experience of participatory, community-based processes. In a pilot initiative under the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), a local NGO, the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG), worked in one of the city’s 70 wards, Mahewa Ward, to facilitate community-led action to address some of these problems.

One of GEAG’s first tasks was to help build up local institutions. These took the form of neighbourhood, thematic and ward-level committees, with volunteer membership, which met monthly to identify problems and plan and implement interventions in health, water and sanitation, drainage, urban agriculture, building and livelihoods. Committee activities included organising residents’ meetings, carrying out needs assessments, disseminating technical information, liaising with local officials, monitoring the municipal government’s performance, managing waste collections and composting, public health and hygiene education, helping residents to obtain water connections, lobbying for improvements, ensuring community participation in collective activities such as drain repairs, and linking poor households to micro-credit organisations. Households contributed small regular payments towards some of these services. Obstacles faced by the project included a lack of data to inform planning, limited resources, difficulty in changing people’s behaviour (e.g. over hygiene and waste disposal practices), the low capacity of the municipal government, weak social cohesion and the challenge of obtaining public land for new community services.

N. Mani and S. A. Wajih, A Participatory Approach to Micro-resilience Planning by Community Institutions: The Case of Mahewa Ward in Gorakhpur City (London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 2014),

Addressing everyday hazards offers an entry point into DRR for social development organisations that might not normally engage in disaster work. An example is the NGO Refugee Social Services (RSS), which works with refugee communities in Durban, South Africa, supporting them through counselling, education, health and income-generating activities. RSS has trained its outreach workers to give advice to women on their routine home visits about how to reduce the risk of domestic fires and what to do if a fire breaks out.+Case Study: South Africa. Urban Disaster Risk Reduction (Carlton: Oxfam Australia, 2014).

It is useful to distinguish between ‘private’ and ‘public’ space when implementing community-level risk reduction measures in urban areas. Most people will take steps to protect their own homes, as far as they are able, but the extent of their responsibility for protecting public spaces may be less clear. Urban residents may feel that it is the municipal authorities’ responsibility to take care of streets, drains and other communal facilities. Yet the boundary between private and public space may be drawn differently in different areas. In one community, keeping lanes clear of refuse and debris may be seen as a community responsibility; in another, it may be seen as the authorities’ task.

A community’s willingness to take on responsibility for managing environmental risks also depends on how far it feels government should, and can, do this. In some cases it may choose to advocate for better environmental and risk management, for instance by calling for improved water and sanitation, health and safety at work, and curbs on polluting industries and practices. Actions such as this usually require targeting private-sector polluters as well as public authorities. This is a necessary task but a difficult one, as the private sector is powerful and often resistant to pressure, while public authorities may be unable or unwilling to support community groups to challenge industrial practices that create risk.