Tuesday, October 10, 2017

How We Build Cities Helps Cause Disasters

When she was only nine, Dayani Baldelomar left her Nicaraguan village with nothing more than a change of clothes. She was among tens of thousands of rural migrants to Managua in the 1980s and 1990s. After years of homelessness, Dayani landed in a shantytown called The Widows, squeezed between a drainage ditch and putrid Lake Managua. Her neighbor, Yadira Castell√≥n, also migrated from the mountains. Driven by hope for a better future for their children, Dayani, Yadira, and their husbands invent jobs in Managua’s spreading markets and dumps, joining the planet’s burgeoning informal economy. But a swelling tide of family crises and environmental calamities threaten to break their toehold in the city.

Dayani’s and Yadira’s struggles reveal one of the world’s biggest challenges: by 2050, almost one-third of all people will likely live in slums without basic services, vulnerable to disasters caused by the convergence of climate change and breakneck urbanization. To tell their stories, Douglas Haynes followed Dayani’s and Yadira’s families for five years, learning 
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firsthand how their lives in the city are a tightrope walk between new opportunities and chronic insecurity. Every Day We Live Is the Future: 
Surviving in a City of Disasters
by Douglas Haynes is a gripping, unforgettable account of two women’s herculean efforts to persevere and educate their children. It sounds a powerful call for understanding the growing risks to new urbanites, how to help them prosper, and why their lives matter for us all.

We asked Douglas Haynes to keep the conversation going after the headlines from Houston, Puerto Rico, and other devastated areas have faded, providing insight into how we can restructure our cities to mitigate the effects of catastrophic weather events.

How We Build Cities Helps Cause Disasters

By Douglas Haynes

At least twenty dead from flooding around Houston. At least fourteen in Mumbai. Nearly 500 killed by a landslide and deluges in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The recent headlines make it seem like the weather alone slayed the unfortunate in these cities that appear worlds apart. But human choices made the floods worse in all of these metropolises. Urban sprawl, deforestation, and housing in high-risk areas were among the biggest factors. And both cities face increasingly frequent storms supercharged by the changing climate. All these factors converging leads to chronic disasters.

Houston, Mumbai, and Freetown are not unique. They are harbingers of a growing wave of urban catastrophes around the world. By 2030, cities will likely cover an additional land area about the size of Peru. As cities grow, pavement spreads, sending rain runoff faster into flood-prone areas. And the loss of natural vegetation means the remaining soil doesn’t retain moisture as well. In flood plains and mountainous cities, urbanization already exacerbates the risk of inundation, as does the growing amount of garbage that clogs drainage systems in many cities. Add what journalist John Metcalfe calls the “rain-bombs” of the changing climate to this mix, and the result is explosive potential for human catastrophes.

These catastrophes do not and will not affect everyone equally. Around the world, low-income people bear the brunt of floods and landslides and often have no insurance or savings accounts to help them recover. No city illustrates the inequity of disasters better than Managua, Nicaragua, where I have reported intermittently since 2010. Between 1980 and 2010, Managua’s area tripled, following a worldwide trend of decreasing urban density. The city sprawled into the surrounding mountains and leveled all but 1 percent of the trees in its watershed. Managua now floods about every three years. Between 2009 and 2014, almost 30,000 people—most of them low-income—were evacuated and resettled due to floods, landslides, and earthquakes.

A landslide that killed nine there in October 2014 epitomized these disasters’ disproportionate impacts on the poor. During an hour of intense rain, a thirty-foot-high concrete wall surrounding a middle-class subdivision collapsed on four squatters’ homes in an arroyo below. This tragedy deeply moved the city’s tens of thousands of squatters because they saw that they easily could have been the victims. Almost all of them live in high-risk locations. As the unfolding tragedy in Houston reveals, this vulnerability of marginalized people is not just a problem in low-income countries. If you cannot afford to live in a safe place, an hour of hard rain could kill you.

For disaster victims, whether the event that harmed you is a named storm worthy of international news is irrelevant. Every day, the gradual confluence of unplanned urbanization, inequality, and climate change causes calamities just as damaging for individuals as media-hyped catastrophes. These events make it harder for people to climb out of poverty, and their consequences on personal assets, health, livelihoods, and infrastructure sap the resilience of the communities least able to recover. In this way, the sum of small disasters keeps adding up over years and generations. According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, “Many commentators argue that the aggregate impact of small events in cities exceeds losses to the low-frequency, high-impact hazards that capture news headlines.”

After the headlines from Houston, Mumbai, and Freetown have faded, the costs of their disasters will continue mounting. Epidemics will need to be stopped, roads and bridges and houses will need to be rebuilt, and displaced people will need to start new lives. All of these efforts could quickly be waylaid by further small disasters.

To help rebuild and mitigate more crises, donors and aid organizations should support governments and communities with sustained disaster risk management initiatives. These should include at least three key elements: identifying at-risk housing areas and offering low-cost resettlement options; undertaking large-scale reforestation and restoration of native vegetation in urban areas; and improving and expanding drainage infrastructure and waste disposal. Ultimately, the larger forces driving inequality and climate change also need to be addressed. Doing so will require global cooperation on an unprecedented scale.

Such cooperation will be difficult to galvanize until we recognize that urban disasters are in part our own making, not just random weather events. “The truth is that most of the flooding in Houston is manmade,” Ed Brown, a member of Houston’s Residents Against Flooding group told a Guardian reporter earlier this year. In this truth resides some redemption. It is in our own hands to help reverse the tide of floods and landslides sweeping cities.

Douglas Haynes is a journalist, essayist, and poet, and teaches at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. He is the author of Every Day We Live is the Future: Surviving in a City of Disasters.

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