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Informality and Disaster Vulnerability

Ashna Mathema's picture

Unlike the more developed nations where catastrophes typically happen when a major disaster strikes, in the developing countries, even small disasters result in disproportionate loss of life and property. Apart from the increased frequency of these events resulting from climate change, there is also an escalated risk associated with an urbanizing world: urban areas in developing country cities are commonly characterized by high population densities, old and deteriorated infrastructure, poor environmental conditions, concentrated poverty in informal settlements and slums, unplanned and often unregulated growth,  and inadequately prepared local institutions, which makes them especially vulnerable. (Photo by Lecercle)

A commonly cited problem attributed to much disaster-related damage in developing countries is the use of inappropriate building codes, poor zoning by-laws, and more generally, the lack of enforceability of the same. This is particularly the case for earthquakes, because unlike other types of natural disasters, casualties and fatalities from earthquakes are associated almost entirely with collapse or failure of manmade structures. The saying “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do” is as true today as it was when it was first coined.

Hence, the importance of these regulations—and more importantly, their enforceability—cannot be over-stated. But what of those households for whom these regulations do not apply?


In India, for example, building regulations only apply to “permanent construction,” broadly defined as a building that uses a concrete slab for roofing, for which someone—the architect, the contractor, or the owner—can be held accountable for non-compliance. They do not apply to the majority of households or houses who live in anything less than that, even semi-permanent housing. This, in essence, means that the large segment of population living in informal housing are completely vulnerable to the smallest tremor or windstorm, let alone a major earthquake or cyclone.

This seems illogical and unjustified given the fact that there are many cheap and simple ways to reduce the risk and vulnerability of such “non-engineered” structures. There are already existing guidelines for mud, wood, and stone construction that provide simple, symmetrical configurations with a low center of gravity, that can be reinforced using braces or tie-beams (of wood, for example) in a manner that reduces the torsional effects of  earthquakes. Similarly, relatively simple clips on roofs and appropriate bracing can increase a structure’s ability to withstand a hurricane.

Yet, despite the availability of this well-documented and researched information, and it relevance and importance in the context of minimizing damage and vulnerability of those living in “informal” housing, very little actually gets used in practice. On the mitigation front, there is a serious lack of awareness among the public, and little or no information dissemination on part of local authorities. On the recovery and rehabilitation front—driven too often by perverse political incentives rather than making the people prepare better for the next disaster—very little emphasis goes into training communities to build correctly in the future. And the vicious cycle of disaster-related damage continues, making the already vulnerable population even more so.

Today’s growing concerns with climate change and greater frequency of natural hazards, together with the growth of the urban population and the informal sector, make a highly compelling case for the Bank to engage in integrating adaptive techniques for self-built and non-engineered housing for low-income households that are relatively more resilient to natural hazards into the broader urban agenda.


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