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Preparing for urban disasters - challenges and recommendations

Young women at Jean-Marie Vincent camp for displaced families in Port-au-Prince sell charcoal and fruits. March 2010 Nancy Palus/IRIN

Electrical engineers and hazardous waste experts join emergency rosters. Power mapping becomes as important as hazard mapping in emergency prevention and response. #fragilecities shows up as often as #fragilestates in Twitter searches. Humanitarian science fiction? No, welcome to what demographers call the new urban millennium and the challenges, as well as changes, aid groups face responding to emergencies in urban areas.

“People are using the same recipe from a rural camp situation in cities. Aid tools and strategies have been cut and paste. This does not work,” said the director of the France-based research, training and evaluation NGO, Urgence, Réhabilitation et Développement (URD), François Grünewald, who has researched urban risks and responses for more than a decade.

It is not enough to ask “Did we do it right?” by meeting basic humanitarian aid standards known as SPHERE, but also, “Did we do the right thing?” said Grünewald.

More often than not, the answer has been no, he concluded.

IRIN analysed evaluations to highlight some lessons emerging from recent urban disasters. What follows are challenges and recommendations reported by groups from Manila to Mogadishu; insights from experts consulted over the past year; and an “urban” aid toolbox organizations have begun assembling but which they admit is far from complete.

Experts generally agree: Humanitarians are still ill-prepared for urban emergencies, whether it be civil conflict in Syria or a “complex” disaster like Japan’s 2011 earthquake followed by a tsunami, resulting in fires, chemical spills and nuclear power accidents.


Some 3.3 billion people live in urban areas, with one billion of them in slums, a number that is growing by 25 million annually, according to the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT). Such growth threatens to “become the tipping point for humanitarian crises,” noted the journal, Forced Migration Review (FMR) in February 2010, which went to press soon after Haiti’s capital was hit by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 220,000 people, injured more than 300,000 and has left some 360,000 others still displaced almost three years later.

“Urban DRR [disaster risk reduction] and preparedness, mitigation, response and reconstruction will come to dominate humanitarian policies and programmes in the coming decades,” noted the review.

The lessons and mea culpas from the aid response in Haiti are still piling up: Not consulting local groups; no exit strategy; importing foreign vehicles and goods without checking locally; coordination between the military and humanitarians based on personality rather than protocol; focusing on transitional, rather than permanent, shelters.

Agencies need to learn the “new rules of the game” of urban disaster response, as the UK-based Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), an umbrella group of some 15 humanitarian aid groups, wrote in 2011 in its compilation of lessons from Haiti.

But what exactly are those rules? What sets apart acute vulnerabilities from chronic poverty? How do you rebuild communities when there is scarce land? What are humanitarians’ responsibilities to host communities and the urban poor? And just when is a humanitarian’s job done in a chronic emergency?

Urban interventions present humanitarians with similar challenges to other chronic emergencies (Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Sahel ) not tied to a specific geographic area that often lacked clear “triggers” of engagement.

Lessons aid workers have compiled from urban disasters - including Philippines’ 2009 Typhoon Ketsana, Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, and Japan’s 2011 twin disasters - still leave a “huge gap”, said George Deikun, director of UN-HABITAT’s Humanitarian Affairs Office in Geneva and one of the authors in FMR’s February 2010 special urban issue.

“There is a lot of literature, but… it doesn’t bring together the critical and necessary elements in the whole cycle of humanitarian assistance to development,” he told IRIN recently. Humanitarians’ work typically has had a “shelf life [intervention period] of 90 days while governments in urban areas are looking to leverage assistance to move on beyond saving lives to re-establishing sustainable communities.”

Urban risks

Experts calculate that urban areas’ population growth - including residents and refugees fleeing conflict - plus unenforced or non-existing building codes can be fatal for urban residents already cut off from city services due to lack of income, security or identification.

While experts differ on how fast the countryside is emptying into urban areas, most agree urban areas in  sub-Saharan Africa are growing more quickly than elsewhere, and that the Asia-Pacific region has the largest number of urban residents, 1.8 billion as of 2011 (43 percent of region’s population).

How the displaced manage in cities, how their needs compare to the urban poor and just what humanitarians’ responsibilities are to address chronic (rather than acute) needs is still debated, according to research on urban displacement and vulnerability by the UK-based Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Practice Group, which noted that the best ways to support the urban displaced are “poorly understood”.

Cities, the crossroads of so many legal and illegal transactions, are also becoming battlegrounds for a “`new’ kind of armed conflict … a variation of warfare, often in densely populated slums and shanty towns [featuring] pitched battles between the state and non-state armed groups,” wrote Kevin Savage from World Vision International and Robert Muggah, research director at Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think tank focusing on violence prevention and reduction.


At a meeting focused on “adapting humanitarian efforts to an urban world” convened last January by the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance (ALNAP), a UK-headquartered network of humanitarian experts and organizations, participants concluded that even with their experience from urban disasters, “collective understanding is patchy, informal and still largely undocumented. It is still too early to say how best to respond to the challenge of urban disasters: the rules have yet to be written.”

In 2009 the Inter-agency Standing Committee (IASC) - an umbrella group of humanitarian groups that sets policy for the aid community - formed a reference group on “meeting humanitarian challenges in urban areas”, setting a two-year action plan in 2010.

The group pledged to prepare the industry better to respond to crises in urban areas, by, among other things, launching a database of urban-specific aid tools that aimed to be the clearinghouse for all information on aid in urban emergencies (done); strengthening technical surge capacity for urban emergency response (partially done); developing or adapting humanitarian tools for urban areas (partially done); promoting protection of vulnerable urban populations (done). Developing guidance on supporting food security in post-crisis areas and building preparedness and community resilience into humanitarian policymaking are still incomplete as of early January 2013.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UN-HABITAT, the Kenyan government and NGOs are trying to pilot a “Multi-Hazard Response Plan” created in Kenya that brought together local and national governments and almost 100 groups working in urban areas to prepare for future urban emergencies. Kenya’s election violence in December 2007 killed an estimated 1,200 persons and displaced more than 660,000, many of whom sought refuge in cities and have yet to return home.

But even bringing together urban actors can be complicated, if not impossible, noted URD.

According to a report the group published in December 2011, new “players” in urban settings include: gangs controlling the population, churches exploiting their distress, social networks linked to the diaspora, community-based organizations trying to attract aid for their constituency, and private companies looking for clients in the aid industry.

The group is finalizing a “concept note” to call attention to the impact on urban areas of Syria’s ongoing fighting, which the UN estimates has killed 60,000 people since protests turned violent in 2010. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, in 2012 some 8,200 people died in areas surrounding the country’s capital, Damascus.

On the housing front,  Shelter Centre, an NGO based in Geneva, developed guidelines in collaboration with OCHA and other relevant agencies, presenting a comprehensive categorization of the shelter and settlement options facing populations affected by disasters and complex emergencies. 

The World Food Programme (WFP) is reviewing food-targeting practices and with Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is developing global guidelines to strengthen urban food security and nutrition in emergencies.


For all the recommendations proffered following recent urban disasters (see sidebar), five key challenges remain:

Urban access. “International agencies are king in rural areas versus cities where they play a supporting role,” said one aid worker. The challenge of working with leaders from neighbourhoods and communities (which researchers note are not necessarily the same), as well as civil society staff and officials from multiple levels of government - all necessary partners - becomes more complicated when the government is a combatant in conflict, as in Syria.

Cluster chaos. According to URD, “multi-sector geographical coordination” makes more sense in urban areas - where all aid is delivered by a single level of authority - rather than the current “cluster” model of crisis coordination in place since mid-2006, which divides aid by issues, such as food, shelter or education.

In Haiti, leadership posts of many sectors were vacant. Once in place, the system was “too heavily bureaucratic” and not able to carry out quick needs assessments; the health sector alone had more than 400 groups participating at one point. Theme-specific groupings were unable to meet multi-sector challenges. Cluster meetings were primarily conducted in English to accommodate the large number of Anglophone emergency responders, which was often too fast-past paced for local Francophone or Creole-speaking groups.

Targeting vulnerable communities. In cities the most vulnerable tend to be highly mobile, untraceable and scattered. Refugees and internally displaced persons may seek out sprawling urban areas for anonymity due to fears of harassment, detention or eviction, making it difficult to track, profile, register or document them. In turn, the task of measuring the impact of satisfying humanitarian versus economic needs is hard because conventional needs assessments do not distinguish acute needs (such as war-inflicted health trauma) from chronic ones (cholera borne of slum living and urban poverty).

Identifying and targeting assistance in cities is a “huge challenge” said UN-HABITAT’s Deikun. “The problem with emergency response is that it has to be done quickly and be done by yesterday. It relies on existing data that is not always correct, and may be politically distorted. Mapping vulnerable urban populations in high-risk environments before the emergency strikes is rarely done.”

Seeking urban experts. Emergencies in urban areas require expertise often in short supply: adapting water and sanitation projects to complex, dense and underserviced urban environments; conducting urban vulnerability and community resilience analyses and plans; developing land use management plans and tenure guidelines; removing debris; reconstruction of urban housing; resettlement of affected populations from emergency shelter and trauma surgery - to name a few.

Following Haiti’s earthquake, the lack of trauma specialists and surgeons led to inappropriate treatment, excessive unnecessary amputations and health complications, according to multiple evaluations. The IASC reference group on humanitarian challenges in urban areas has created and is disseminating generic terms of reference for a number of these specialists capable of responding to urban disasters.

Exit strategy. Humanitarians are the “last ones” to develop an exit strategy, said URD’s Grünewald. “The humanitarian is focused on saving lives. We only think of it at the end.” The problem is when there is no strong governance to take over and “the principal activities of many agencies seem to be stuck in an extended relief mode,” DEC noted. Bring along an urban adviser or development specialist as early as the damage assessment, Grünewald counselled, to  decide when to exit.

He concluded humanitarians can only do so much.

“[Humanitarian] NGOs want to become engaged in slums. But all the money from all the donors would only be a drop in the bucket - and there would still not be an exit strategy… The Band-Aid system is messy and can only be a Band-Aid.”


  1. Work with and through municipalities wherever possible
  2. Find and use neighbourhood networks and capacities, such as home-owner associations, while recognizing that community and neighbourhood is not the same
  3. Work with the local private sector; do not compete unfairly
  4. Focus on long-term homes, rather than short-term shelter
  5. Keep people in or close to their neighbourhoods, if safe
  6. Assume skills and resources can be found locally
  7. Use cash to stimulate markets
  8. Prepare now for the next big urban disaster
  9. Health providers: use a common format for medical records
  10. Avoid mass burials/cremations
  11. Build violence-prevention into agency activities
  12. Use community radio
  13. Employ urban-oriented minimum standards
  14. Track populations - and health epidemics - through mobile phones
  15. Consider alternatives such as mobile medical clinics to avoid large-scale relief distributions, which can invite violence
  16. Be aware that agency logos on relief items can, in urban markets with consumers more attuned to image and branding, stigmatize recipients
  17. Crowdsourcing - information gathered from the public through SMS text messages or the Internet - can be a valuable source of information to assess locations and needs, though it is still problematic in terms of accuracy and ease-of-use
  18. Conduct “one-hit” assessments instead of subjecting a community to multiple visits
  19. Build resilience during recovery operations
  20. Consider renters and squatters in resettlement plans
  21. Avoid relocation camps on a city’s periphery as they can increase displacement by drawing surrounding populations to camp services. Rather, construct camps as close to neighbourhoods of origin as possible
  22. Establish strict admission criteria for emergency care: it may be the only free health care available and could quickly become overwhelmed
  23. Focus on psychosocial support, often overlooked in an emergency response

Sources: DEC 2011, UNISDR 2012, ALNAP November 2012, UN-HABITAT 2011, December 2012 interview with George Deikun, UN-HABITAT/Chair of IASC reference group on meeting humanitarian challenges

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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