Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: The Importance of Disaster-Risk Reduction Strategies

By Lydia Darby - 20 October 2016
Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: The Importance of Disaster-Risk Reduction Strateg

“This is the single most important event at Habitat III”, says the panellist at the Cities, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction special session. The challenge of climate change and the associated risks of urban hazards should now be one of the world’s top priorities. On day three of the UN’s conference on sustainable urban development, I explore the emphasis placed on climate change mitigation and investment in disaster-risk reduction strategies at the heart of that development.

The cycle of urban poverty is both caused and amplified by hazards. These hazards are increasing in frequency and intensity due to climate change. Whether natural, technological or cultural – they range from extreme storm surges to water scarcity. The need for collective action to reduce the global production of greenhouse gases to mitigate these effects was strongly emphasised in the opening of the special session.

The causal link between poverty and exposure to natural disasters has been discussed frequently over the first three days of the conference, addressed specifically at a number of NGO-led side events. There has been a particular focus on the vulnerability of the urban poor and the need to build resilience to natural catastrophes.

A low income settlement that suffers from a multitude of urban hazards will stay poor. When citizens lack the human capital and resources to pull themselves out of poverty they will pass it to the next generation and so the cycle continues. Poverty increases vulnerability to the point where hazards become disasters. Citizens living below the poverty line are more susceptible to disasters due to a lack of risk-informed, coping capacities. They also lack the financial, social and policy support structures that are essential for urban resilience. Acute shocks also undo any previous capacity gains, reinforcing the cycle.

Inhabitants of the poor urban peripheries in Haiti were the most vulnerable to the devastating consequences of the earthquake in 2010. The lack of commitment and motivation from the government to implement disaster risk-reduction (DRR) strategies during the rebuilding process ensured the urban poor also suffered greatly in this years’ hurricane.

Breaking the Cycle: The New Urban Agenda makes a commitment to creating resilient cities that invest in DRR strategies. This has been echoed across the conference to foster proactive engagement with DRR. Discussions suggested a move from reactive to proactive risk-based approaches was needed, which carry higher economic costs in the short term but are imperative long-term investments. By including disaster-risk reduction in poverty alleviation and sustainable development approaches, we are able to mitigate the human, economic, social and environmental losses of acute shocks which continue the cycle of poverty.

How? By using the guiding principles of the United Nations’ “Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction” at every level from grassroots to national governments. Only through fostering horizontal collaborative relationships between multiple-stake holders can this be achieved.

1) By understanding the risks, especially to vulnerable people. Dialogue with communities and engaging with those living in risk-prone areas rather than stigmatising them is important for this. Are residents aware that they are exposed to certain hazards? Is there a coping strategy in place? This community level, bottom-up approach has been emphasised as fundamental in Habitat III discussions so far.

2) By strengthening governance and institutional responses. For example, appointing a Chief Resilience Officer in local governments to lead implementation processes and share data. Good governance in DRR processes is frequently understated. It can be the sole enabling factor of risk-informed urban design or it can be the cause of gross neglect (such as non compliance with safe housing designs) leading to massive loss of life.

3) Through long-term investment in risk-reduction and response. Multi-stakeholder collaboration generates essential funding and helps build community capacities. It also aids the development of smart solutions based on community priorities. These include multi-hazard warning systems and effective national and localised risk-strategies based on evidence and data. The benefits of investing in resilience strategies rather than rebuilding are overwhelmingly evident.

4) Finally, the “Build Back Better” principle embedded in the New Urban Agenda is the process of rebuilding a stronger and more resilient city than before. It involves actually applying the lessons we have learnt and not just identifying them.

Something interesting that has come up during discussion is how important small-scale acts such as improving shelter, water and sanitation in low-income, vulnerable areas are not considered DRR strategies. These incremental improvements lessen everyday chronic stresses, aid the alleviation of poverty in low income areas and improve health standards. All of these make individuals more resilient to shocks and stresses. I believe that incorporating investment in basic service provision can hugely benefit not only the urban poor’s poverty cycle but also their resilience to withstand hazards. My second issue is that there exists a blindness in how to implement these strategies in low-income settlements if they lack critical funding or the good governance necessary.

A thorough commitment by national and local actors to implementing the range of effective disaster-risk reduction and management strategies will be critical in breaking the cycle of poverty and promoting development in urban-hazard prone areas in LDCs.


Lydia Darby (@lydiadarby_) is studying a BA in International Relations and Politics. Her interests lie in conflict and disaster risk-reduction, recovery and development, as well as the empowerment of women and youth. She will be exploring how these issues intersect in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. To keep up to date with the GLI team’s commentaries and policy pieces from HABITAT III, or for outputs by GLI teams at other international events please see here.

Photo credit: Earthworm via / CC BY-NC-SA

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