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Natural Disaster, Mitigation

and Sustainability: The Case
of Developing Countries
Souheil El-Masri & Graham Tipple
Published online: 21 Jul 2010.

To cite this article: Souheil El-Masri & Graham Tipple (2002) Natural Disaster,
Mitigation and Sustainability: The Case of Developing Countries, International
Planning Studies, 7:2, 157-175, DOI: 10.1080/13563470220132236
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International Planning Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2, 157175, 2002

Natural Disaster, Mitigation and Sustainability: The

Case of Developing Countries


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Department of Civil & Architectural Engineering, University of Bahrain, P.O. Box 32038,
Bahrain; 2Centre for Architectural Research and Development of Overseas (CARDO),
University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, UK
ABSTRACT The application of sustainable development principles to natural disaster mitigation
in developing countries is examined. Three main and interrelated aspects are considered: land-use
planning and policies; shelter design, building materials and construction methods; and institutional organization at local, provincial, national and international levels. These three aspects are
illustrated on the basis of experiences of human settlements in specic disaster situations and of
housing the poor in developing countries in general. Taking into consideration the scale of the
problem and the variety of conditions, the most pressing issues are identied, along with the
different remedies and the major areas for policy intervention. However, transferring these ideas
into implementation strategies, in which creative combinations of solutions, priorities, timeframes
and resources are to be identied, will depend on a particular disaster situation and obviously
cannot be carried out without detailed examination of the circumstances. Adjustments and
changes are proposed to the ways in which human settlements are shaped, grown and managed
in order to ensure harmonious interactions between natural and human systems, so that
vulnerability to natural disasters is minimized.

Facts and Figures

It is difcult to construct an accurate global picture of the effects of
natural disasters because of the changing risk patterns in relation to time,
hazard types and varying local conditions. At the same time, available statistics
are notoriously unreliable, due to the lack of rigorous standardized methods of
data collection to ensure comparison and measurement of direct and indirect
effects of disasters. However, it is generally agreed that natural disasters are
becoming more severe and more frequent in the case of developing countries
(Smith, 1992, p. 30; Tolba, 1992, p. 86; Alexander, 1993, p. 495; International
Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), 1996, p. 10; Natural Hazards
Observer, 2000a, p. 3). This is undoubtedly the result of an increase in human
settlements in vulnerable areas, rather than a rise in the number of geophysical
events such as earthquakes, hurricanes or oods (Deyle, 1998, p. 343). In 1980,
the number of people affected by major natural disasters was 100 million; this
gure had reached 311 million by 1990, and it was estimated to be half a
billionor 8% of the worlds populationin the year 2000 (Berke, 1995, pp. 45).
1356-347 5 Print/1469-926 5 Online/02/020157-1 9
DOI: 10.1080/1356347022013223 6

2002 Taylor & Francis Ltd


S. El-Masri & G. Tipple

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Between 1947 and 1980, the average loss of life per event amounted to 32 in
North America and 224 in Europe, while the gures reached 633 in Central
America and the Caribbean, 657 in South America, and 2412 in Asia (Hewitt,
1997, p. 61). Currently, 96% of natural-disaster-related deaths occur in developing countries (Natural Hazards Observer, 2000a, p. 3). Other estimates reveal that
the number killed in disasters is three to four times higher in developing
countries than in the developed ones. The striking difference, however, is in the
number of affected survivors, which is estimated to be some 40 times higher in
developing countries (Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA), 1993, p. 27).
Based on different sources, Berke provides further evidence and illustrative
The mean annual death tolls due to natural hazards declined by 75
percent or more in developed countries like Japan and the United States
during the 1960s through the 1980s, but increased by over 400 percent
in developing countries like India and Kenya over the same period. In the economically vulnerable East African countries, including
Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, the costs
exceeded over 20 percent of GNP at various times during the 1980s .
In contrast, the 24 billion loss from the 1992 Hurricane Andrew disaster
in South Florida, which was at the costliest disaster in the history of the
United States, represents an almost undetectable proportion of its $6
trillion economy. (1995, pp. 34)
Rapid uncontrolled urbanization and precarious economic conditions are the
two main reasons for the exacerbation of the effects of natural disaster in
developing countries. Urban population has grown from about 1 billion people
in 1980 to 1.4 billion in 1990 and to 2 billion in 2000, and estimates show that this
gure will reach 3.6 billion by 2020 (United Nations, 1989, Table A-3, quoted
by Devas & Rakodi, 1993, p. 2). It is expected that 80% of the worlds
urban population will be in developing countries by the year 2025 (IDNDR,
1996, p. 6). Even more pronounced are the statistics that between 1950 and 2000
the number of cities with 1 million inhabitants has increased by a factor of seven
and that, out of the 15 mega cities in the world, 12 will be in developing
countries by 2015 (Topics, 1999, p. 70). This unprecedented urban growth has
been associated with the sizeable poorer sector of the population. The World
Bank (1989) estimated that around 330 million city dwellers, or 28% of the
developing worlds urban population, fell below the poverty line. The gure
reached 950 million in 2000, representing 49% of the total urban population.
Their housing and living conditions are best described as threatening to life and
health because of serious deciencies in infrastructure and service provision
(Habitat Debate, 2000, p. 6).
The increasing shortage and squalid conditions of housing are the outcomes
of a varied and complex set of causes such as mismanagement, bureaucracy,
and lack of proper institutions, infrastructure and resources. They are also
generated by unrealistic building bye-laws, high building standards and the
exclusion of the target population from planning and implementation processes
(Choguill, 1994, pp. 2528; Cobbett, 1999, p. 1). All these become barriers to the
poor accessing housing units produced by the normal market and make it
impossible for them to acquire shelter in an urbanized world.

Natural Disaster, Mitigation and Sustainability


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Urbanization, Poverty and Vulnerability

In developing countries, urbanization and poverty have serious implications for
worsening conditions of housing and for the spontaneous growth of settlements.
They have pushed people to live as cheaply as possible on dangerous, marginal
sites and in inadequately built houses. Overcrowded dwellings, subdivision and
conversion of houses, lack of amenities and deterioration of building conditions
are common characteristics of these settlements (Tolba, 1992, pp. 190192; Devas
& Rakodi, 1993, pp. 812). Urban poverty also has negative impacts on health
and environmental conditions. Ironically, poor, desperate people not only suffer
from environmental decline created by rapid uncontrolled urban expansion and
inadequate policies, but also themselves become a cause of ecological deterioration by over-exploiting surrounding natural resources and by neglecting
environmental quality under the pressure of survival (Overseas Development
Administration (ODA), 1992; Hardoy et al., 1993). The cruel logic of survival
leads to environmental decline, which in turn perpetuates poverty as degraded
ecosystems in peri-urban areas offer diminishing returns to those inhabitants
unable to take advantage of urban economic opportunities or to sell their land
for residential development. Within the built-up area, the neglect of environmental quality may encourage the spread of diseases or induce natural disasters.
This helps to explain why poor people stay poor, because they are caught in a
vicious circle aggravating their misery and poverty. In such circumstances,
neither the growth of settlements nor the housing units themselves help to
mitigate the impact of natural disasters.
It is not surprising that the 1976 Guatemala earthquake is referred to as a
class-quake or poor-quake. Even 20 years later, the urban poor are still at risk.
In 1996, a study identied 197 precarious settlements with a total of 589 900
inhabitants around Guatemala City, of which 76 sites were considered highly
susceptible to earthquakes, oods and landslides (IDNDR, 1996, p. 11). Similarly,
the majority of victims in the earthquakes of 1985 in Mexico and 1986 in San
Salvador, and the 198283 oods in Resistencia, Argentina, were poor people
(Hardoy et al., 1993, p. 91). In Acapulco, Mexico, the poorest human settlements
are located in the highest elevations of the bay, and many of them have
expanded into the gullies that drain seasonal heavy rains. This made the area
susceptible to hurricane Pauline, associated with extraordinary rainfall and
debris ow that produced the worst natural disaster in Acapulco in the last 30
years (Meli, 1998). This pattern was reconrmed in the case of the oods and
landslides in Venezuela in December 1999. Many of the victims were living in
shanty towns that had sprung up in the mountain ravines and beside rivers in
the capital city of Caracas and in towns along the coast (Sancio, 2000).
Such unsustainable growth of many human settlements not only endangers
the continuity into the future, but also puts the existing built environment at
extreme risk and wastes valuable limited resources. Poor people are unwillingly
exposing themselves to risks because of the pressures of survival. Their decision
to occupy disaster-prone settlements is inuenced by a lack of alternative
opportunities, scarce resources, the need to gain access to employment, and
short-term horizons. Both rapid urbanization and poverty perpetuate the vulnerability of human settlements in developing countries, leading to a number of
serious negative aspects (Figure 1). In fact, the physical vulnerability of human
settlements is a manifestation of vulnerable socioeconomic conditions and insti-

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S. El-Masri & G. Tipple

Figure 1. Urbanization, poverty and their effects on the vulnerability of human settlements.

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Natural Disaster, Mitigation and Sustainability



S. El-Masri & G. Tipple

tutional incapacity, which force people to expose themselves to risks in the rst

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Mitigation and Sustainability

Mitigation within the framework of sustainability involves a long-term planning
of multiple objectives. It aims to improve the living conditions of the poor and
to safeguard the environment, while meeting needs of current and future
generations. Approaches to sustainable mitigation of natural disaster acknowledge that natural processes and human activities interrelate to produce disasters,
and that most of the issues and solutions are therefore also interrelated.
Therefore, a solution to one problem can meet more than one goal or need.
Two important lessons are vital to effective mitigation measures against
natural disaster. The rst lesson is that disasters must be considered as unresolved development problems and that they are not unpredictable, isolated or
independent events. Indeed they are failures in development. Therefore mitigation of natural disasters should address the ongoing socioeconomic processes
which marginalize people and increase their vulnerability (Peacock, 1996). The
second lesson is that mitigation of natural disasters cannot depend solely upon
technological solutions and should be based on a wide range of measures
including engineering devices, land management, social regulation and economic improvements. In fact, Winchester (1992) is highly critical of cyclone
mitigation policies in South India, which rely on a narrow technical approach
instead of addressing the socioeconomic and political factors underlying vulnerability to natural disasters.
The application of these lessons can only take place if the mitigation programmes t as closely as possible into the policies, regulations and programmes
that normally control urban development. However, this is not a simple undertaking because of the complexity and scale of the problems of urban settlements
in developing countries. The challenge for a comprehensive disaster mitigation
programme for fast-growing cities is to continue general economic development
and to provide jobs, shelter and basic amenities. It has to sustain urban growth
while solving the environmental and equity problems, which are the real causes
of vulnerability to natural disaster in developing countries. Other challenges are
the limited resources and the degraded environmental conditions, which
necessitate the use of simple, reliable and low-cost measures for mitigating
natural disasters.
By meeting these challenges, mitigation becomes an integral part of the
development of sustainable human settlements. It is a development that meets
the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations
to meet their own needs (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p. 43). The concept is guided by three important principles:
intra-generational equity/futurity, inter-generational equity/social justice and
trans-frontier responsibility (Haughton & Hunter, 1994, p. 17). Thus it has many
facets: ecological, social, economic and technological (Choguill, 1993, pp. 35).
The basic objective of this approach is to reduce or to prevent the impact of
future disasters by improving and maintaining socioeconomic and physical
standards, by using resources (renewable and non-renewable) in a responsible
manner, and by keeping within the absorptive capacity of nature. These objectives would lead to economic efciency in the use of resources, social equity in

Natural Disaster, Mitigation and Sustainability


the distribution of development, enhancement of peoples self-reliance and

participation, and the avoidance of serious setbacks to socioeconomic and
physical development (Environment and Urbanization, 1992). Considering the
huge losses resulting from natural disasters; properly balanced mitigation strategies would not require extra costs, but would require a different approach to the
natural system, including the consideration of production and consumption of
resources in the making of human settlements. Such approaches to mitigation of
natural disasters would have major implications for: land-use planning and
policies; shelter design, construction methods and choice of building materials;
and the different levels of institutional organization.

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Policy Implications of Urban Sustainability on Natural Disaster Mitigation

Land-use Planning Policies
Hazardous sites are favoured by the poor because of their low economic
potential and the high chance of avoiding eviction, as well as proximity to
employment opportunities in surrounding commercial and industrial areas. The
high costs of urban land, low levels of affordability, inappropriate land policies
and speculative developments by the private sector are some of the problems.
Ironically, public housing schemes for the poor, with their high costs and
standards, have in general been ineffective in meeting peoples needs in both
qualitative and quantitative terms. The solution is to improve access to land for
housing the poor in order to limit the encroachment of residential settlements
onto physically hazardous sites. For example, in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, the
government has made land available to volcano victims at a safe distance of
20 km from the vulnerable site (IDNDR, 1996, p. 19). Also, a relocation process
has been established to reduce risks of landslide and ooding in Lima, Peru
(Leandro & Miranda, 2000). Moreover, on the volcanic slopes of the Pichincha
(Quito, capital of Ecuador), a partnership was established between landowners,
municipal companies and the private sector to promote eco-tourism and environment-friendly agro-businesses (Paranhos, 2000). Other cases demonstrate
how access to land for the poor could be facilitated. The Egyptian donation of
land for the Ismalia Development Project, coupled with appropriate empowerment of families to utilize their collective energy and time, was essential for the
success of the initiative that inuenced national housing policies (Serageldin,
1997, pp. 102104). Taiwan and Korea have devised joint privatepublic-sector
land acquisition and planning policies, which could increase the supply of
serviced land (Pugh, 1995, p. 57). A community organization on the outskirts of
Xalapa in the state of Vera Cruz, Mexico, succeeded in developing 80 lowincome neighbourhoods and having them ofcially recognized as part of the
city. The Partners in Development in Naga City, Philippines, has successfully
adopted a conict resolution mechanism which brought government agencies,
urban poor associations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private
landowners to solve land tenure problems. Moreover, the collective land acquisition in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the call for urban reform in Bangladesh, aim to
secure tenure, to improve access to land, to regulate illegal settlements and to
upgrade slum areas. Additionally, urban tenure reform in South Africa challenges apartheid spatial forms and offers the chance of more equitable and
sustainable urban development (Habitat Debate, 1999, pp. 11, 1618).


S. El-Masri & G. Tipple

Access to land for the poor could be achieved through various channels in
which government can intervene directly and indirectly. In this regard, Angel et
al. (1983), McAuslan (1985) and Ansari & Von Einseidel (1998) explore urban
land policies and practices and suggest some important policy reforms to
facilitate access for housing the poor in general. In the case of disasters no single
approach can be proposed, but there is a combination of possibilities, which
should be considered in accordance with the types of hazards, costs and benets,
land market and socioeconomic conditions that characterize each situation.
Therefore, it is suggested that these possibilities should focus on the following:

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directing development of human settlements into vacant public land by

providing incentives which could be in the form of: initiating sites and
services and core housing schemes; expanding infrastructure and residential
zoning; improving public transport and development of new employment
opportunities; improving access to nancial sources; securing the right to land;
and adopting suitable tax systems;
increasing the supply of urban land for housing the poor by the private sector
through joint ventures between private and public sectors, e.g. land readjustment, land trading or guided land development. Many incentives could be
provided to the private sector to encourage the development of vacant land,
through tax exemption, infrastructure development, nancial incentives, improving zoning and regulations, improving land transactions, and by
imposing higher land taxes on undeveloped property;
improving access to existing public housing schemes through the reduction of
unfair allocation practices such as showing favouritism, and speeding up
application procedures. Moreover, this should be associated with the reexamination of the physical conditions of settlements in order to improve
density through increasing built-up areas or encouraging subdivision. It
should also be associated with examining the peoples socioeconomic conditions and possibilities for their improvement;
facilitating access to housing for the middle-income groups who usually
compete with low-income groups for low-cost dwellings. This could be done
by encouraging the formation of housing associations, providing adequate
nancial institutions for loans and credit, improving rent laws in a way which
encourages landlords to make more housing available for rent, and by
increasing the built-up areas of low density urban locations;
identifying hazardous sites and converting them into either parks or productive urban farms; in both cases peoples participation is essential for the
success of these initiatives. Another alternative is to provide incentives for
commercial groups to develop these sites at acceptable levels of risk. This
means that mitigation measures could be taken into account at an early stage
in the development of sites, risk-resistant construction methods could be
incorporated into the building processes, and adequate eviction and emergency plans could be made from the outset.
Risks can be reduced not only by limiting the encroachment of residential areas
onto hazardous sites, but also by reducing the fragility of existing vulnerable
settlements. This approach requires the legitimization and improvement of
existing informal settlements and slum areas. Serageldin, in his edited book The
Architecture of Empowerment (1997), presents various successful case studies from
Peru, Brazil, Jordan, Pakistan, India and Indonesia. These cases provide valuable

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Natural Disaster, Mitigation and Sustainability


lessons for upgrading and improving informal settlements and slum areas.
Empowering the poor is imperative in promoting community organizations and
cooperative actions for implementing incremental infrastructure and housing
projects, for reinforcing social harmony and sense of community and for
improving living, environmental and economic situations. Conditionally, sensitive participatory and negotiation processes, adequate access to land, resources
and technical support, and the use of appropriate technology and local materials
are essential ingredients. Strengthening settlements conditions would improve
road networks and provide open areas for public use, which in turn would
improve escape routes and emergency procedures in the case of disaster. For
example, a study in Caqueta, a vulnerable area of Lima, identies illegal
encroachment of itinerants, which blocks access roads and emergency routes. It
also outlines an action plan for re reduction in the informal commercial centres
by preparing evacuation maps, and the organization of brigades and the
handling of re extinguishers, stretchers and rst-aid facilities (Leandro &
Miranda, 2000).
The various approaches, which include the sustainable use of land resources
and the reduction of exposure to hazards, require the political will to intervene
and to invest in land with the goal of long-term sustainable benets. To achieve
this, nancial resources can be generated directly and indirectly by the following:

directing public funds away from building houses towards land development;
collecting taxes on undeveloped sites and implementing betterment taxes on
land which take into account types of usage, benets gained and impacts on
the environment;
mobilizing local resources to be used for housing development and for
managing and maintaining their settlement environments;
encouraging national and international relief and emergency organizations to
invest a portion of their resources in mitigation measures instead of the
present complete focus on relief aid and emergency activities.

There are also indirect resources, which could be conserved by improving

housing conditions for the poor and reducing their vulnerability to natural
disasters, and by improving the general environmental quality of the city. These
changes in approaches to mitigation would save large amounts of resources
presently spent on remedial ad hoc measures. In fact, adequate housing has
important benets not only for the individuals and their families, but also for the
society as a whole. Shelter and development are mutually supportive and
interdependent. Moreover, there are indirect benets to be gained from integrating the marginal, poor people into the general economy of the city and
from reducing their exploitation and negative impact on the environment.
Regularizing informal settlements encourages people to improve their housing
conditions, facilitates the provision of urban services and helps to mobilize
communities to contribute to the management of their settlements (DurandLasserve, 1999). Also, building homes using labour-intensive methods, and local
materials and technologies, redistributes income to poorer households and
increases benets to the local economy (United Nations Centre for Human
Settlements/International Labour Organization, 1995; Tipple, 1999; Nordberg,
These shifts of approaches and the implied extra investments have certain
essential requirements upon which their success or failure depends. They should
therefore address key issues such as the land market and management, admin-


S. El-Masri & G. Tipple

istrative issues and the incremental achievement of standards, and can be

detailed as follows:

a clear understanding of the land market, including forces which affect supply
and demand, land use and zoning, planning and regulations, land tenure and
registration, as well as the main actors and beneciaries;
a comprehensive set of datagraphic and non-graphicon the urban land
which shows: zoning and land use, quality and quantity of land, geological
and ecological conditions, topography and hazardous areas, land tenure and
registration, and building regulations and standards;
appropriate land-use policies to address three basic inter-linked objectives,
environmental quality, management of natural resources and adequate housing for the poor, in order to facilitate constructive land-development
a participatory planning practice involving consultations with the people
concerned which would increase the chances of mobilizing the community, its
cooperation and its responsibility for the maintenance and improvement of the
settlements in the long term;
incremental improvements in infrastructure which would require a progressive type of nancial backing, effective land registration, rationalization of
management and employment of appropriate technologies. All these would
lead to reduced costs and increased coverage. Cost recovery could be achieved
through the collection of taxes from private landlords on the improvement of
their properties, as well as by imposing a basic tax on beneciaries of the
scheme on the basis of the improved land registration and tenure;
enhancement of the administrative sector dealing with urban land by improvement of the collection of data about the city, coordination between the
different departments involved, and re-evaluation of building codes, regulations and standards;
development of a deeper understanding of the interaction between human
and natural systems and their environmental and socioeconomic dimensions
not only in hazardous areas, but also in surrounding areas through the shared
ecosystem and socioeconomic networks.

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Shelter Design, Construction Methods and Building Materials

Sustainable land-use policies for the mitigation of natural disasters should be
complemented by appropriate housing design, construction methods and use of
building materials. These policies should be tailored to strengthen structural
conditions of the dwellings and reduce physical vulnerability, and to create
employment and generate income for the poor. Moreover, they should reduce
construction costs and employ locally available materials and construction
methods, and enhance community participation and quality control. Other
requirements should focus on producing simple dwelling designs based on
forms understood by the people, on allowing incremental and exible growth of
the dwellings depending on peoples resources and needs, and on providing
adequate technical training and resources. In fact, these were the main reasons
for the success of the programme Typhoon-resistant Core Housing built for the
poorest of the poor in the Philippines (Diacon, 1997, p. 130). Such approaches
consider the various socioeconomic, cultural, physical and managerial aspects

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Natural Disaster, Mitigation and Sustainability


involved and their interrelationship. They also encourage interactions between

professionals and the people. Hence, the acceleration of housing supply for the
vulnerable poor should focus on the process of production rather than the end
product in order to maximize the use of resources and opportunities for
improvement (Turner, 1976).
In addition to simplicity, exibility and incremental growth of house design,
careful consideration should be given to peoples needs and cultural values.
They inuence the design of the dwellings in terms of space articulation and
arrangement, openings and partitions, appearance and form, as well as the
relationship with the surrounding areas (Aysan & Oliver, 1987; El-Masri 1989;
Dynes, 1992, pp. 6770; Oliver-Smith, 1992, pp. 6061). All these aspects are
normally carefully addressed in traditional forms of dwellings. However, this
does not imply that the copying of the traditional forms blindly will succeed,
since many traditional ways of life have gone through a process of change with
urbanization and modernization. Also, in some cases traditional forms, materials
and construction techniques increase vulnerability. A truly innovative design is
one which harmonizes between traditional forms and present needs in order to
achieve continuity and culturally rooted architecture (Norton, 1999).
In the case of informal settlements, shelter improvements should be based on
comprehensive analysis of the physical conditions of the dwelling in relation to
the existing hazard. The shape, height, building materials, construction methods
and space arrangements of the dwelling should be improved and modied by
applying appropriate strengthening measures. All this could be undertaken
during the regularization and upgrading process. The United Nations Disaster
Relief Co-ordinator (UNDRO, 1991, pp. 115135) offers different technical solutions depending on the type of hazard, the physical conditions of settlements
and available resources (Table 1).
Innovative shelter design as a part of the housing process should be complemented with the use of local and renewable materials, and labour-intensive
construction methods, in order to generate employment, to reduce the costs of
construction, to promote peoples self-reliance, and to strengthen physical conditions (Nordberg, 2000). For example, in Quito, Ecuador, local materials,
techniques and funds were used to retrot 11 high-risk schools. The initiative
encouraged the US Agency for International Development and Ecuador National
Directorate for School Construction to agree to sponsor the design of new,
earthquake-resistant school modules to be used for future school construction
throughout the country (Natural Hazards Observer, 1996). Such approaches could
be effective in guiding the management of natural resources in a way which
reduces exploitation and degradation of the environment. However, the success
of sustainable local construction industry activities depends largely on two
conditions. These are the provision of nancial incentives in the form of soft
loans and suitable credit packages, and the availability of training and information to producers and users, especially in the area of quality control. They
should also be supported by making renewable raw materials accessible to
producers and by imposing appropriate taxes on imported building materials in
order to make the locally produced materials competitive.
The viability of these practices can be amply illustrated with reference to
the Shamboob Brick Producers Co-operative Society in Sudan, which won one
of the United Nations (UN) Best Practices awards in the year 2000. In Sudan,
brick making has always beneted the middle-class businessman and the poor


S. El-Masri & G. Tipple

Table 1. Construction considerations in the case of various natural hazards

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Type of
natural disaster

Technical considerations (building materials and construction methods)


avoid low-pitched and at, lightweight roofs

ensure wall and roof stability
use good anchoring systems and anchor window frames
avoid objects projecting from buildings
close the space under the building to prevent its uplifting by wind force from
under the structure
avoid roof overhangs, canopies, etc.
connect roofs to walls to foundations strongly


elevate buildings above the ooding level

use materials resistant to water, e.g. stabilized soil blocks with cement or lime
avoid deterioration of mud walls by using overhanging roofs with adequate
use waterproof plaster to protect walls
build foundations and basements on a layer of gravel to prevent scouring caused
by inundation


use regular and symmetrical forms which perform better in earthquakes

separate buildings of different heights and provide breaks (expansion joints) at
regular intervals in long buildings: the length of the unjointed wall should not
be more than 10 times the thickness
provide openings as small as possible, and they should not be located near
build walls at right angles and avoid bevelled corners
build walls from good-quality materials (adobe, concrete blocks) and provide
good bonds between blocks with alternated vertical joints
use a plinth band in all walls and reinforced concrete footings
strengthen building by use of different reinforcements: horizontal (collar) and
vertical (buttress), which lead the rigidity of the building to be distributed

Volcanic eruption

strengthening structures to withstand the direct effects of volcanoes is not a

practical option. It is best to avoid sites prone to volcanic activity and to direct
settlement growth into safer areas. However, some of the indirect effects of this
type of disaster could be reduced by:
avoiding at roofs in order to reduce the potential damage expected from the
fall of ash
using pitched roofs at a slope of more than 20 degrees; steeply-sloping roofs
covered by smooth metal sheeting do not retain the ash
protecting windows facing a volcano with metal sheeting
avoiding the use of material which could be burnt by hot lava fragments


strengthening buildings is not a recommended option in landslide-prone areas

because of the high level of vulnerability. However, in some cases measures
could be implemented to:
strengthen walls subject to damage from land erosion
build a strong frame structure to avoid the collapse of the building due to debris

Source: Adapted from UNDRO (1991).

workers have remained poor. The Co-operative Society turned this situation
around by means of capacity building of the workers to manage their own
production, and negotiated with the authorities and the credit institutions to

Natural Disaster, Mitigation and Sustainability


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facilitate the workers to organize their own enterprises. Most importantly, it also
introduced standards for bricks and promoted energy-efcient, environmentally
appropriate production processes, making the local brick industry commercially
viable. Fifty per cent of wood used for brick burning has been substituted and
this gure is expected to increase to 75%. These practices have led to improvements in incomes, resulting in access to education, health and better living
conditions. This demonstrates very clearly that if appropriate approaches are
adopted, it is possible to help communities to improve their own circumstances
(see the web site
The adaptation of appropriate technology is a vital measure in sustaining
construction activities for the mitigation of natural disasters. Such a technology
is low in capital investments, and simple in technique and management. Also,
it relies on inputs that are locally available, affordable, divisible, and easily
generated and developed in order to maximize the use of available resources
and skills and to improve on existing deciencies and practices. All these
contribute to sound habitat conditions and good environmental quality. The
effective application of appropriate technology can be promoted through the
provision of technical support and incentives for innovation, and the application
of appropriate building regulations and standards. Such an approach would
enable effective production and assemblage of elements, recycling of building
materials, improvement of traditional, local techniques and the strengthening of
the structural conditions of the dwelling. It would also require the development
of appropriate contracting negotiations and applications, site management and
development, labour organizations and procedures, and building regulations
and codes (Nordberg, 2000). Generally speaking, sustainable construction industry activities require a comprehensive knowledge of the following:

the mechanical properties of low-cost construction materials, including

specications and their behaviour in hazardous conditions;
the existing building industries in terms of skills available, technologies used,
costs and production methods, problems and deciencies;
the available natural resources and their possible uses in the production of
building materials;
the grass-root approaches to building construction, the development of training and building teams, and the incorporation of maintenance and repair
the incremental process of site and infrastructure development, and house
design and construction phases;
the impacts of building materials on socioeconomic development, human
health and ecosystems;
the grass-root approaches and communal activities needed to pool efforts to
construct individual houses or neighbourhood communal facilities;
the relationships between the economic conditions of the household, the cost
of dwelling construction and the pattern of construction activities.
Institutional Organization: Local, Provincial, National and International
The different levels of authoritylocal, provincial, national and international
need to promote cooperation between them in order to complement each others
activities to ensure sustainable and equitable urban development (Badshah,
1996). These institutions possess power, experience and resources which should

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S. El-Masri & G. Tipple

guide all aspects of decision making, leading to the execution of adequate

mitigation measures against natural disasters for sustainable human settlements.
To promote effective cooperation, the different organizations should redene
and readjust their roles in order to establish adequate communication networks
and warning systems; to disseminate existing and new knowledge; to help in
effective technology transfer; and to mobilize adequate resources. Also, cooperation helps to promote research and innovative solutions; to provide the
necessary legislative and institutional backup; and to develop education, training and evaluation techniques in the eld of natural disaster (Scott, 1992; United
Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 1993). Another niche for
cooperation is the development of international databases on different areas
related to disaster reduction, for example appropriate technology, low-cost
infrastructure development and housing upgrading. An initiative has been
implemented in this direction by the Pan American Health Organization
(PAHO), which has established a Virtual Disaster Library (VDL) offering ample
information on various aspects of disasters which can be accessed by employing
a simple search engine (Natural Hazards Observer, 1999).
Local Authorities
Local authorities have a crucial role in improving the conditions of human
settlements in order to mitigate the effects of natural disaster. They have direct
contacts with people and they are responsible for the application of general
policies decided by central governments, and for the implementation of infrastructure and development projects. In addition, these authorities compete for
national resources and can, to a certain extent, re-shape the general policies
decided at the central government level. These institutions possess the power
that is crucial for turning policies into actions for the mitigation of natural
disasters within the framework of sustainable urban settlements. Local policies,
planning and regulations can be effective tools in guiding the interaction
between the human-use system and the natural-events system, in promoting
grass-root approaches and community development, and in providing legislative support in term of regulations and standards, as well as facilitating access
to resources. In fact, inadequately dened roles between local and national levels
can have serious implications.
the 199798 El-Nino experience in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador shows
how the civil defence organisations were rapidly pushed on the side by
the new temporary governmental organisations charged to deal with
the catastrophe. The results were confusion, duplication at the institutional level, and a serious loss of morale and credibility in each
countrys civil defence structure. (Natural Hazards Observer, 2000b)
Local authorities should promote education, public awareness and training at
the community level, by focusing on incremental infrastructure upgrading and
improved building construction, production of building materials and construction methods, improvement of traditional techniques, development of
group-oriented activities, and dissemination of information and knowledge.
These activities should be based on a clear understanding of peoples social and
cultural conditions in order to capitalize on the existing social coping mechanisms, and to maximize the use of resources. This requires a broadening of the

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Natural Disaster, Mitigation and Sustainability


base of decision-making power by altering the ow of authority through

increased public participation (Badshah, 1996, pp. 176177).
These authorities should enhance legislative systems through their institutional policies for human settlements. This could be achieved by: promoting
cooperation between the different departments involved and reducing bureaucracy; reviewing stafng, skills and budgeting; developing training programmes
for employees; and evolving simpler and more precise rules for administrative
procedures, including the supervision of policy implementation and project
accountability. They should also encourage institutional innovations to integrate
natural disaster mitigation measures into the planning process of settlements.
This could be achieved by reviewing standards, zoning and land-use plans by
assessing potential hazards and providing relevant information at city level, by
preparing local emergency and preparedness plans, and by focusing on research
and documentation in the area of natural disaster.
Provincial Level
The maximization of efforts to combat natural disaster should link local and
provincial levels by establishing channels for cooperation between the different
local authorities. Much of the local knowledge and experience, staff training and
legislative innovations could be shared between and developed by the different
local authorities. Moreover, the available resources needed for the development
of human settlements in different localities could be mobilized on a regional
level according to a comprehensive resource management plan. In fact, the
impacts of natural disasters are not conned to the damaged areas; they have
serious and immediate implications at a provincial level. These implications
include the draining of regional resources for relief and emergency measures,
peoples displacement to other areas and the increased demand for housing in
safer surrounding areas, and disruption of regional socioeconomic conditions as
a result of the crisis in a certain locality. This is what Smith (1992, pp. 2930)
refers to as a disaster impact pyramid, spreading from the immediate hazard
zone to reach the world, or what Hewitt (1997, pp. 4054) calls the
geographicalness of disaster, recognizing the wider and intangible effects.
The enhancement of coordination and integration through provincial multidisciplinary committees is benecial in two ways. First, cooperation ensures the
saving of resources and the reduction of duplication of efforts, as well as
encouraging planning within sustainable regional development parameters.
Moreover, most local data and information need to be viewed within the frame
of the regional level in order to assess the source, scale and characteristics of
geological and hydrological hazards. Also, warning, emergency and relief systems could be developed at the regional level through improved
communications and dissemination of information. Second, sub-national committees could play the important intermediate role needed to interpret national
policies and programmes to local authorities and to aggregate and articulate
local and sub-national issues at national level.
National Level
The state bears the primary responsibility for protecting its people, and the built
and natural environments, from the destruction caused by natural disaster. It

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S. El-Masri & G. Tipple

has a major role in providing the right conditions for enhancing the performance
of regional and local authorities. One of the most common problems in developing countries is the centralized systems, which make it impossible for the
decision makers to be closer to communities because of spatial and socioeconomic distance. Moreover, centralization of power has a spatial dimension in
focusing development and resources in the capital, often at the expense of
development in other areas. Therefore comprehensive decentralization of decision making to sub-national and local levels would widely enhance local
initiatives, maximize the use of resources, respond to the real needs of the
people, and build appropriate systems for dening responsibilities and accountability in the administrative system. However, this is not a simple task, as
socioeconomic planning and participation of civil society are still new, but could
be overcome by building consensus and capacity at different levels. This
coincides with the objectives of the City Development Strategies aiming at
addressing socioeconomic planning and spatial developing to reduce poverty
(Barcelo, 2000).
Planning for the mitigation of natural disasters is an open-ended process. It
should be integrated within the general planning process of human settlements
in order to ensure continuity between mitigation and sustainable human settlements. It should also be seen as a part of the national decentralization process.
Therefore, the state should be expected to: enhance technical assistance for
regional and local institutions; provide training for technicians, professionals
and administrators; distribute resources fairly; and develop plans which respond
to the real problems of housing associated with poverty and rapid urbanization.
The state should also create enabling policies, which deal with regulatory
mechanisms, administrative readjustments, economic incentives, and the dissemination of knowledge and information campaigns. Such measures at the
national level would enable the state to adequately respond to issues identied
locally, and to comprehensively plan for national strategies for the mitigation of
natural disasters within the framework of sustainable human settlements. Furthermore, the state should perform its role in guiding outside interventions,
including resources, technology transfer and cooperation at the international
International Level
The inter-linkages between nations through economic, political and humanitarian concerns, and the shared ecosystems, make natural disasters a matter of
international interest. In fact, the global importance of the mitigation of natural
disasters was clearly manifested in the declaration of the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), forging links between
the political, scientic and technological communities. Initiatives such as
RADIUS (Risk Assessment Tools for Diagnosis of Urban Areas Against Seismic
Disasters) for urban seismic assessment and the El-Nino inter-agency preventive
approach aimed at reducing the loss of life, property damage and social and
economic disruption caused by natural disasters (Natural Hazards Observer, 1998).
The gravity of the matter and the necessity of international cooperation encouraged the UN to establish a successor body named the International Agency for
Disaster Reduction (ISDR) to carry on the decades work (Natural Hazards
Observer, 2000c). Its mission is to inuence the decision-making process and to

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Natural Disaster, Mitigation and Sustainability


increase communities resilience to disaster and to promote a culture of prevention within a sustainable development framework, especially in the case of
developing countries (Natural Hazards Observer, 2000a; 2000c). In the same vein,
the World Bank launched a consortium to provide a global partnership for
reducing the risk of natural and technological disasters (Natural Hazards Observer, 2000a, p. 3). On a regional scale, both La Red in Central America and the
Asian Disaster Centre in Asia and the Pacic work to promote disaster awareness and the development of local capacity building, and to foster
institutionalized disaster management and mitigation policies. Additionally,
Brazil, which are actively involved with grass-roots organizations and local
communities to tackle poverty, have become regional anchors (Habitat Debate,
2000, p. 19).
International experience in the eld of disaster reduction can no longer
continue to be ignored. In many developing countries, the lack of knowledge,
resources and expertise can be overcome by adequate global cooperation
in tackling natural disasters. However, international technical and nancial
assistance can only be supportive to national initiatives, which have major
responsibilities in reducing the vulnerability of human settlements. The
supportive role of international agencies should be to assist countries in building
mitigation programmes by applying existing knowledge, taking careful consideration of socioeconomic and cultural diversity among nations. This can be
achieved through various channels of cooperation, such as comprehensive
technology transfer, exchange of know-how and mobilization of resources.
International agencies can also focus their efforts on promoting research into
different aspects of natural disaster, on disseminating existing and new information, and on establishing international database and information systems.
Other areas of cooperation could be in fostering scientic and engineering
endeavours for the mitigation of natural disasters, including data analysis, risk
assessment and warning systems. These international agencies can also develop
education, training and evaluation programmes for policy makers and professionals in the eld of natural disaster mitigation (Scott, 1992, pp. 218221).
Horric images of recent disasters, such as Turkeys earthquake of August 1999,
the Venezuela oods and landslides of December 1999, Indias earthquake of
February 2001, and the Mozambique and Malawi oods of March 2001, demonstrate the importance of shifting from post-disaster emergency actions to
pre-disaster mitigation. This shift aims to meet more than one goal, by operating
within the existing socioeconomic, cultural, technical and organizational processes which inuence human settlement growth. Therefore, mitigation of
natural disaster within the context of urban sustainability requires changes and
adjustments in the ways human settlements are shaped, planned and managed.
Resources, technologies and organizational processes should be inextricably
linked to the quality of the environment and to meeting the peoples needs. In
this way, mitigation approaches can combat the real causes of vulnerability, and
prevent and counteract the unnecessary creation of ecological and socioeconomic
problems. This approach would have productive and lasting results, which
would lead to continuity between mitigation and sustainable development of
human settlements. It would require comprehensive land policies to facilitate


S. El-Masri & G. Tipple

access to land for housing the poor, appropriate house design, building industry
activities that strengthen physical conditions and increase self-reliance and
participation of the community, and institutional reform at different levels to
increase cooperation, awareness and effectiveness. There is no doubt that these
recommendations would have positive impacts on the vulnerability of human
settlements, poverty and uncontrolled urbanization, and ensure that efforts and
resources were equitably distributed and had lasting consequences for future
generations, while the environmental quality needed for the continuity of life
itself would be protected.

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The authors wish to thank Dr Ranjith Dayaratne for his most useful comments
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