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Why cultural heritage matters for urban resilience

Barbara Minguez Garcia's picture

Across the disaster risk management community, there is growing recognition that protecting cultural heritage is fundamental to urban resilience. Traditional knowledge embedded in cultural heritage, such as historical evacuation routes or shelters, can help societies cope with natural hazards. Moreover, when these hazards disrupt cultural heritage sites, such as museums, monuments and places of worship, they often cause irreparable damage to people’s cultures, identities and livelihoods.

A case in point is last year’s devastating earthquake in central Mexico, which damaged over 1,500 historic buildings, including the 250-year-old Church of Santa Prisca, one of the country’s grandest and most beloved churches. Mexico is one of a number of countries that have undertaken major efforts to protect cultural heritage sites, including through its Plan Verde, which works to reduce seismic and other disaster risks in Mexico City’s historic center.

On the sidelines of the 2018 Understanding Risk Forum, which was aptly held in Mexico City, Giovanni Boccardi, Chief of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit for the Culture Sector of UNESCO, made the case that much more needs to be done to put cultural heritage front and center in the disaster risk management agenda.

Five actions for disability-inclusive disaster risk management

Margaret Arnold's picture
Photo Credit: Guilhem Alandry doculab Malteser International / Flickr CC

While disasters threaten the well-being of people from all walks of life, few are as disproportionately affected as the over one billion people around the world who live with disabilities. Following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, for example, the fatality rate for persons with disabilities was up to four times higher than that of the general population.
 
Persons with disabilities are especially vulnerable when disaster strikes not only due to aspects of their disabilities, but also because they are more likely, on average, to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes than persons without disabilities, including higher poverty rates. Disasters and poorly planned disaster response and recovery efforts can exacerbate these disparities, leaving persons with disabilities struggling to cope even more both during and after the emergency.
 
In advance of the Global Disability Summit, and drawing on a recent report titled “Disability Inclusion in Disaster Risk Management” from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and the Recovery (GFDRR) and the World Bank, here are five actions that development institutions, governments, and other key stakeholders can take to ensure that persons with disabilities are not left behind in the aftermath of a disaster. 

Thank goodness, we had an extra bridge in stock!

Malaika Becoulet's picture
Credit: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory
On October 4, 2016, category 4 Hurricane Matthew struck the southern part of Haiti. Strong winds and rain triggered heavy flooding and landslides that resulted in 500 fatalities, along with widespread infrastructure damage and economic loss. The hurricane caused the collapse of the Ladigue Bridge, a vital asset connecting the southern peninsula of Haiti to the capital city and the rest of the country. The collapse left 1.4 million people completely isolated, making it extremely hard to deliver the aid and humanitarian assistance they needed. Overall damage and losses were equivalent to 32% of GDP, with transport accounting for almost a fifth of the total.
 
Haiti is among the countries that are most vulnerable to natural disasters including hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes—the result of a combination of factors that include high exposure to natural hazards, vulnerable infrastructure, environmental degradation, institutional fragility, and a lack of adequate investment in resilience. In Haiti, 80% of people and goods are transported by road. First aid and humanitarian resources, often concentrated in Port-au-Prince, need to transit through congested and sometimes inaccessible roads to reach affected areas. In that context, strengthening and building resilient infrastructure is key.
 
Since 2008, the World Bank has supported the reconstruction of 15 major bridges and stabilized 300 kilometers of roads to enhance the resilience of Haiti’s transport network. One of the most significant innovations that came out of this effort was the adoption of standardized emergency bridges that can be assembled within 2- 3 months from pre-designed and interchangeable components.

Celebrating World Environment Day and building resilience in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Robert Reid's picture
Samking Koihinah Braima, deputy minister of Agriculture and Forestry, plants a tree on behalf of President Julius Maada Bio. Photo: Asad Naveed/World Bank

To celebrate World Environment Day, hundreds of Freetonians came together to plant a tree in honor of the more than 1,000 people killed and missing after devastating landslides and floods tore through Freetown less than a year ago. The landslide and flood waters ripped through the capital city with tremendous energy, destroying everything in its path. It was reported that a huge wave of boulders, building debris and mud cascaded down the river channel immediately after the landslide. The disaster affected more than 6,000 people and caused significant destruction and damage to critical infrastructure.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

Barbara Minguez Garcia's picture
Ponto-cho Alley, Kyoto. (Barbara Minguez Garcia / World Bank, 2016)
Ponto-cho Alley, Kyoto. (Barbara Minguez Garcia / World Bank, 2016)
 

Ponto-cho mapIt is 7:45 p.m. in Ponto-cho, the historic narrow alley at the core of the Japanese city of Kyoto. Close to the Kaburenjo Theater – where still today Geikos and Maikos (Kyoto Geishas) practice their dances and performances – the traditional adjoining buildings with restaurants and shops are full of guests. Local people, tourists, students… On this Saturday in mid-April, the warm weather brings a lot of people to the streets nearby.

At 7:46 p.m., a M 5.1 earthquake strikes. Seven seconds of swaying. It doesn’t cause major damage, but it is enough to spread panic among a group of tourists. Screams, shoving, confusion… drinks spill, candles fall, people rush.

At 7:49 p.m., the fire starts spreading through the old wooden structures, also threatening the historic theater. Access is difficult due to the narrow streets and panicking crowd.

What happens next?

It could be a fire in the Ponto-cho traditional alley. It could be an earthquake shaking the historic center of Kathmandu (Nepal), the archaeological site of Bagan (Myanmar), or the historic town of Amatrice (Italy). It could be Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, blasting sites with rain, flooding, and gale-force winds.

Cultural heritage assets around the world are at risk. They are often vulnerable due to their age, as well as previous interventions and restorations made without disaster risk or overall site stability in mind. Heritage sites reflect legacies, traditions, and identities. With all this, they carry a large cultural and emotional value of what could be lost – certainly beyond the traditional calculus of economic losses.

In many cases, it is not possible or advisable to conduct reconstruction on cultural heritage sites post-disaster. Therefore, the essence and soul of a cultural heritage site is at risk of being lost forever, making preparedness and preservation even more critical.

How can we protect these special places and traditions from the threat of natural hazards?

Better forecast, better preparedness – investing in improved weather services

Adeline Choy's picture

Sun or rain? Most of us rely on the daily weather forecast to know what to wear or whether to bring an umbrella. However, for millions of people living in flood prone areas, timely and accurate forecasts, as well as early warning, can impact more than just clothing choices –they can help minimize flooding impacts.
 
Floods are the most frequent and damaging among natural hazards. Between 1980 and 2016, floods led to economic damages exceeding US$1.6 trillion, and more than 225,000 people losing their lives. Compounded by rapid urbanization and climate change, these losses will likely increase, especially in fast-growing countries.

Antananarivo: A city for whom?

Salim Rouhana's picture
Photo: Michel Matera/World Bank


Planning is a theme in cities as ancient as Rome, Cairo, and Athens to as modern as New York and Singapore. It is used as an instrument to manage collective living. Planning remains key in shaping the urban contract of how and to what end people are willing to inhabit the same space.
 
Madagascar is witnessing rapid urbanization. From an overall population of 24.8 million (2016), the country has close to 7 million urbanites, compared to 2.8 million in 1993. Cities generate about 3/4 of the national GDP, with the capital city, Antananarivo, contributing more than 50%.

Reviving Degraded Wetlands in India’s North Bihar

Pyush Dogra's picture

Kanwar Jheel is the largest in a series of 18 wetlands spread across the Ganges flood plains in India’s north Bihar. For generations, these wetlands have been the mainstay for this densely populated region, enabling families to farm the fertile soil and fish in nutrient-rich waters.

kanwar jheel, bihar


During the monsoon, when the River Burhi Gandak - a Ganges tributary - overflows its banks, the wetlands absorb the runoff, protecting this extremely flood-prone region. When the rains are over, the water shrinks to one tenth the size, exposing marshes and grasslands that create a mosaic of habitats for a wide variety of flora and fauna.

In winter, over 60 species of duck and waterfowl visit these wetlands on their annual migration routes along the Central Asian Flyway.

From Istanbul to Manila—different fault lines, similar challenges

Elif Ayhan's picture
 “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” This was the response given by Sir Edmond Hillary when asked how he and his companion Tenzing Norgay became the first to summit Mt Everest, when so many before had failed. He believed we could all overcome our biggest challenge simply by deciding to act.

Is it possible for the same sentiment to be applied by government leaders – leaders who have the privilege and responsibility to preside over some of the world’s largest and most dynamic cities, especially those that share a common challenge in terms of seismic risk? Metro Manila, the megacity of the Philippines, the seat of government, and the engine of the national economy, has been destroyed numerous times over the last 500 hundred years by earthquakes, and currently sits upon a fault that is overdue to move. Istanbul, with world-class cultural heritage sites treasured by all, also sits near major fault lines expected to move any day. Tokyo and Wellington, the heart of government, culture, and history, also share exposed locations close to major fault lines.

In Wellington, decades of work – including the current Get Ready week! – have aimed to prepare the city for the next “big one”; but compared to the burgeoning megacities of Manila, Tokyo, or Istanbul, it is a small hill to conquer. How do you prepare these megacities with population of up to 15 million people? How do you climb the mountain of needs to build resilience? According to Sir Hillary, the answer is simple, you need to take the decision to accomplish something extraordinary.

In September 2017, the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) through the Japan-World Bank Program for Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Management in Developing Countries supported a knowledge exchange between Turkey and the Philippines focused on the challenge of building seismic resilience in megacities with high urbanization. For the World Bank, it was clear from the start that seismic risk is a priority on the Urban Resilience Agenda, when Johannes Zutt was able to explain to the visiting delegation the technical details of how base isolation is used to protect critical hospitals in Istanbul. The delegation saw impressive progress made by Turkey and Istanbul, from revised institutional frameworks, strengthened preparedness and response capabilities, and retrofitted schools and hospitals to adapted municipal e-services that ensure that the construction of resilient new buildings are approved fast and with the right safety checks. While massive seismic risk still exists within Istanbul, visible and concrete actions are also underway to improve the safety of its citizens.
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Resilience in urban transport: what have we learned from Super Storm Sandy and the New York City Subway?

Ramiro Alberto Ríos's picture
Photo: Stefan Georgi/Flickr
Back in 2012, a storm surge triggered by Super Storm Sandy caused extensive damage across the New York City (NYC)-New Jersey (NJ) Metropolitan Area, and wreaked havoc on the city’s urban rail system.

As reported by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the subway suffered at least $5 billion worth of damage to stations, tunnels and electrical/signaling systems. The Port Authority Trans-Hudson network (PATH) connecting NYC to NJ was also severely affected, with losses valued at approximately $871 million, including 85 rail cars damaged.

In the face of adversity, various public institutions in charge of urban rail operations are leading the way to repair damaged infrastructure (“fix”), protect assets from future similar disasters (“fortify”), restore services to millions of commuters and rethink the standards for future investments.

NYC and NJ believe that disasters will only become more frequent and intense. Their experience provides some valuable lessons for cities around the world on how to respond to disasters and prepare urban rail systems to cope with a changing climate.

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