Mother nature and South Asian cities

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Earthquake destruction

In South Asia, 302 million people will join the urban population between 2011 and 2030. If I were one of them, (and let’s assume for a moment that South Asia is one big happy country with no political borders and no religious or ethnic divides), where would I want to live to be safe from natural disasters?

Well, I would probably avoid cities in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan because they face a high risk of earthquakes and landslides. Cities in northern Pakistan are also at risk of heavy inland flooding. How about the coast? Nope. Data tells me that I should avoid coastal areas in Bangladesh, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka because I do not want my house to be blown away in a cyclone or washed away by a storm surge. Maybe I should live in Bangladesh. Yikes! Chittagong, Sylhet and Dhaka are all in very high earthquake hazard zones. And climate change will cause increased precipitation in eastern South Asia and across India, and warming waters in the Bay of Bengal, which, in turn, will increase the frequency and intensity of cyclones in Bangladesh and on the eastern coast of India.  Indeed, for nine cities around the Bay of Bengal, what is now a 100-year storm event may occur as often as every two to five years by the end of the century. So, those areas are out of the question too.

And the situation is only going to get more difficult.

The number of people exposed to natural hazards is growing by 3.5 percent a year in the region. By 2050, 246 million South Asians will reside in cities in cyclone-prone areas. This growth is primarily driven by the urbanization process, which concentrates people in risk-prone areas, while climate change exacerbates disaster risks in those areas. It is for this reason that our recently launched Flagship report on urbanization in South Asia includes risk and vulnerability to natural disasters in its framework as one of the key determinants of prosperous, livable cities.  The report acknowledges that increasing urban resilience in South Asia is particularly vital because of the large numbers of people and physical assets concentrated in risky areas. Urbanization has the potential to lift millions of South Asians out of poverty and bring forth tremendous economic growth, if cities can limit the effects of the natural disasters that will inevitably occur.

South Asia, of course, is no stranger to natural disasters. The recent tragic earthquake in Kathmandu, for example, killed more than 8,000 and caused damage to the city’s infrastructure that will take years to fully repair. And, as the region’s urban population continues to grow, more people will be put in harm’s way given that much urban expansion is projected to occur in high-risk areas.

Earthquake reconstruction 

Unfortunately, like other developing nations, South Asian countries’ responses to major disasters have been largely reactive. More often than not, a lack of preparedness and resources has meant that relief efforts have only begun after the arrival of international teams and funding. 

There are several things South Asian nations can do to address the situation. Identifying risk at the city level is a must. With the help of urban planners, engineers and academics, cities can revisit urban design policies and ensure enforcement of building codes and land-use plans. That way they can minimize or prevent further building in risk-prone areas and reinforce structures resilient to various hazards. Building institutions and collecting data is another must. Countries with strong institutions for mitigating disaster risk can mainstream data collection and availability. The good news is that, in response to recent major disasters, such as the 2001 Gujarat earthquake or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, all countries in the region have developed national disaster risk management plans or have included urban resilience in their national development plans.

But the most effective approach to disaster risk management is insuring for disaster. As Jeffrey Sachs puts it, natural calamities pose quantifiable risks and there is enough precision to allow for insurance coverage. Natural hazards like earthquakes are not one-time events, but occurrences that return with calculable probabilities. Estimating these probabilities will require investment in historical disaster records, disaster modeling and assessments of the vulnerabilities of infrastructure and buildings. Insurance allows countries to be ready to finance a response to a high-impact disaster before it happens, preventing them from cutting into scarce budgets set aside for services and infrastructure. Usually, insignificant but recurring disasters are covered by reserves or contingent credit. High-impact, less-frequent disasters can be insured in capital markets.

In recent years, the World Bank’s South Asia team has focused on developing disaster insurance mechanisms. One notable project was developed in Sri Lanka in 2014 and provides a line of credit that can be drawn on partially or in full if the country declares a state of emergency after a natural disaster.

Preparing and insuring for natural disasters is imperative to build livable and prosperous cities in the region. These measures can ensure the well-being of urban citizens –especially the poor and informal population – and pave the way for a more sustainable and resilient South Asia.

To download the World Bank’s Flagship report “Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia; Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability” go to:


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