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Humanitarian Aid on the move #8, special issue: Cities and crises

Towards the sustainable development of urban areas affected by disasters
Emmanuel Hubert

Natural disasters have recently had devastating effects on cities and urbanised areas like New Orleans, Haiti and even the Vendée region in France. These human tragedies have also highlighted the economic aspects of territorial development. Disasters should be seen as an opportunity and it is the responsibility of the local authorities that this is the case. However, they need to be helped to see issues of territorial development in a broader and more sustainable light. Though cities become more complex as they become bigger, if they are well planned, they can be made safer and, in the long term, less expensive to maintain. The principles of sustainable development can reduce the main vulnerability of all territories: decisions made by the public authorities.

 An unacceptable toll

In recent decades, natural disasters have devastated several cities and urbanised areas: two of the most recent events which received a great deal of media attention were hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and the earthquake in Port-au-Prince and Haiti in 2010. Even though these disasters usually involve developing countries, it is clear that this is not always the case. Neither has France been spared, with the cruel example of the windstorm, Xynthia, in 2010.

There is one major difference though: the number of victims. Whereas the number of deaths in modern countries ranges from less than a hundred to several hundred, in developing countries the human cost is on a different scale, with tens of thousands of deaths.

There are two constants, no matter what the level of development of the country: firstly, each disaster is more and more expensive, and secondly, urbanized areas have not been designed to optimize the chances of survival of their inhabitants, although Japan would appear to be an exception in terms of earthquakes in large cities.

We need to learn from the distant and recent past and adapt our territories to their strengths and weaknesses. The idea that the (human) toll will be as high next time is not acceptable.