"We cannot stop urbanization but we shouldn't be naïve; a trend does not mean destiny, disasters can be prevented," Matthias Schmale, the Under-Secretary-General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said in Nairobi at the global launch of the 2010 edition of the World Disasters Report.
Schmale said solutions for disaster risk reduction and preparedness "need to be found in dialogue with the affected people; moving from the bottom upwards".
The World Disasters Report 2010 focuses on urban risk, with the IFRC warning that 2.57 billion urban dwellers living in low- and middle-income nations are vulnerable to unacceptable levels of risk fuelled by rapid urbanization, poor local governance, population growth, poor health services and a rising tide of urban violence.
The estimated one billion urban dwellers now living in crowded slums will rise to 1.4 billion by 2020, the report says, adding that Africa, which is often considered predominantly rural, "now has an urban population (412 million) larger than North America (286 million)".
"Urban is the new rural," Schmale said. "We know that it is better to give seeds than food... we should invest more in preparedness as shown by the recent disasters in Haiti and Chile where the magnitude was worse in Chile but the impact was worse in Haiti."
According to IFRC, urban poverty and disaster risk are often closely intertwined and the links between them will be increased by climate change.
"In any given year, more than 50,000 people can die as a result of earthquakes and 100 million can be affected by floods and the worst-affected are most often vulnerable city dwellers," IFRC said.
James Kisia, deputy secretary-general of the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), said there was a need to rethink the definition of social development.
"The average African man in a rural area will not live in a single room with his children but this is increasingly becoming the norm in informal settlements in urban areas; we seem to have left such social issues at the mercy of economic development," he said. "Leadership cannot be left to the government alone, we must partner together to create an enabling environment for social development."
Good urban governance is a recurring theme in the World Disasters Report 2010, with the IFRC stressing that it is essential to ensure that people are empowered and engaged in the development of their urban environment and are "not marginalized or left exposed to disasters, climate change, violence and ill health".
IFRC quoted David Satterthwaite, lead writer of the report and senior fellow at the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED), as saying: "The crisis of urban poverty, rapidly growing informal settlements and growing numbers of urban disasters arises from the failure of governments to adapt their institutions to urbanization.
"It stems also in part from the failure of aid agencies to help them [governments] to do so - most aid agencies have inadequate or no urban policies and have long been reluctant to support urban development at a sufficient scale."