Introduction Introduction Chapter 5 Chapter 5
Chapter 1 Chapter 1 Chapter 6 Chapter 6
Chapter 2 Chapter 2 Notes for Indicators Notes
Chapter 3 Chapter 3 Notes for boxes Notes for boxes
Chapter 4 Chapter 4 Indicators Indicators
CHAPTER 5 Printer Friendly printer friendly version
Chapter 1 Urbanization and Sustainability in the 21st Century

Cities: Burden or Blessing?

Taking the Broader View

Looking Beyond the Local

Land Cover Changes

Cities and Climate Change

Poverty and Vulnerability to Natural Disasters

Sea Level Rise: Not If but When, and How Much?

Adapting to Climate Change

Local Actions, Global Consequences: Global Change, Local Impact

Poverty and Vulnerability to Natural Disasters

Cities are highly vulnerable to natural crises and disasters: Sudden supply shortages, heavy environmental burdens or major catastrophes can quickly lead to serious emergencies. The consequences of such crises are multiplied by poorly coordinated administration and planning.

Natural disasters have become more frequent and more severe during the last two decades, affecting a number of large cities (see Figure 7). The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that, between 1980 and 2000, 75 per cent of the world’s total population lived in areas affected by a natural disaster.(16)In 1999, there were over 700 major natural disasters, causing more than US$100 billion in economic losses and thousands of victims. Over 90 per cent of losses in human life from natural disasters around the world occurred in poor countries.

Figure 7: Large Cities in Relation to Current Climate-related Hazards

Click here to enlarge image

Source: de Sherbenin, A., A. Schiller, and A. Pulsipher. Forthcoming. "The Vulnerability of Global Cities to Climate Hazards." Environment and Urbanization. Note: Hazard risk represents a cumulative score based on the risk of
cyclones, floods, landslides and drought.

The impacts of GEC, particularly climate-related hazards, disproportionately affect poor and vulnerable people—those who live in slum and squatter settlements on steep hillsides, in poorly drained areas, or in low-lying coastal zones.(17)For example, decades of informal settlements on hillsides surrounding Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to the devastating impact of the December 1999 flash floods and landslides, which reportedly killed 30,000 people and affected nearly half a million others.(18)Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans (Box 23) shows that developed countries are also not immune to such wide-scale disasters.



Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States on 29 August 2005. It killed over 2,800 people, destroying lives, leveling homes and leaving hundreds of thousands of survivors homeless. An estimated 9.7 million people living in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi experienced the hurricane-force winds. Katrina had its greatest effects on the city of New Orleans and in coastal Mississippi, but caused devastation as far as 160 km from the storm's center along much of the north-central Gulf Coast.

Across the three states hardest hit by the storm, about 4.9 million people, or some 41 per cent of the population, live in coastal areas. About 3.2 million people live within the imminent or occurring flood area. Poor people were the most affected by the hurricane. African-Americans and the elderly were more likely to reside in a flooded area and were more likely than non-elderly whites to die as a result of the flooding.

Drought, flooding and other consequences of climate change can also modify migration patterns between rural and urban areas or within urban areas. For example, severe floods in the Yangtze Basin, China, in 1998 and 2002, caused by a combination of climate variability and human-induced land-cover changes, displaced millions of people, mainly subsistence farmers and villagers. Similar examples can be seen in India, México and other poor countries. Many such “environmental refugees” never return to the rural areas from which they were displaced.