Planning failures are worsening the impact of super storms

This article is written by Habitat for Humanity Australia CEO, Martin Thomas.

One of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century has just pummeled the United States.

Hurricane Irma, which packed winds of up to 298km per hour, has hit South Florida hard, although it is still too early to estimate its terrible impact. It follows the devastation of Hurricane Harvey which, just weeks ago dumped trillions of litres of rainfall on Texas, killing 60 people and causing $180 billion in damages.

Getting less headlines is the flooding that has hit India, Bangladesh and Nepal – killing at least 1200 and leaving millions homeless.

The flooding in Nepal is considered to be the worst in the last 15 years. The monsoon has affected over 1.7 million people and displaced more than 40,000 families in 35 districts, partially or completely damaged over 200,000 houses, and left roads impassable.

Many parts of the flood-affected areas still remain submerged. Displaced families are forced to live in crammed spaces or makeshift tents of flimsy plastic sheeting with no privacy and no access to basic facilities like electricity or safe drinking water. Apart from food and shelter shortages, the displaced flood victims also face the risk of disease outbreak.

There is little doubt such storms and flooding are becoming more frequent and more severe. It should again serve as a clarion call for urgent action on climate change.

But equally as important, is the impact that inadequate housing, poor planning and public policy is having amid such disasters.

It is estimated that some 1.6 billion people across the globe don’t have access to decent housing. The number of people living in substandard, city slums across the globe will reach two billion over the next twenty years. This represents a quarter of the world’s projected population for 2030. A recent report by Habitat for Humanity Australia has detailed the calamitous impact urbanisation is having on our world – particularly in Asia where more than 500 million people are already living in slums.

In Asia, urbanisation is condemning hundreds of millions of people to live in squalid, slum conditions with little access to clean water, electricity, sanitation and safety. In Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, the population was 6.6 million in 1990 but is expected to spiral to 27 million by 2030.

When natural disasters strikes – especially weather events of unprecedented size and severity – the impact on communities is magnified. Ramshackle housing, poor infrastructure, overcrowding have all become a lethal recipe when super storms strike.

Every year, natural hazards impact human settlements and cause the loss of thousands of lives, infrastructure and damage to national economies. When natural hazards impact communities this way, and when those communities lack the resilience to recover on their own, it becomes a disaster. The world has witnessed a sharp increase in the frequency and severity of disasters and this trend is set to continue as a result of growing population pressures, unplanned urbanisation, climate change and environmental degradation. Unfortunately, disasters discriminate, often impacting the most vulnerable groups in society the hardest.

Even in more developed countries, the housing boom has seen housing developments spring up in flood prone land as planners bow to lobbying power of development and the public demand for housing

Unfortunately, housing has failed to emerge as a high priority amid global development targets. But now the UN is considering reforms to its Human Settlement Programme.

It is an opportunity to recommit to efforts to expand access to safe, adequate and affordable housing across the world.

It is an opportunity for the UN to commit to an evidence-based and independent assessment of UN-Habitat in an effort to enhance its effectiveness, efficiency, accountability and oversight of UN-Habitat.

One area where the UN must continue and strengthen its focus is on the security of tenure. Residential land use occupies 65 to 75 percent of the surface area of cities, yet 1 billion people in cities around the world lack secure land rights.

Secure land rights refer to the ability to use and control the use of land, and helps define the relationship between people — as individuals or groups — and land. These rights bring with them the freedom to live without fear of eviction or property theft and can apply to a variety of formal and informal arrangements.

Strengthening security of tenure is an important step to building resilient and responsive communities that can better withstand, and recover from disaster. When a disaster strikes, the laws of the land determine the speed of recovery. Without proper land laws in place, people lose their homes and their ability to recover.

Having secure land tenure means disaster affected households can focus on recovery and rebuilding sooner rather than later, and removes barriers facing local government and the international community’s efforts to rebuild infrastructure and housing, enhance food security, improve resilience to future disasters, and reduce extreme poverty.

Now is the time to address housing as a priority, and as a catalyst for building stronger, more resilient communities for generations to come.

Habitat for Humanity Australia has launched an emergency appeal to respond to the flood disaster in Nepal. Donate today.

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