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How Is Disaster Aid Being Retooled to Meet Catastrophes That Strike Cities?

Past response strategies have focused on helping those in remote, rural areas. But when an earthquake, flood or other calamity hits an urban center, aid must take a different form
earthquake, Haiti,disaster,aid,international



Courtesy of CHF International

NASA scientists may have debunked the claim that the world will end this December, but evidence suggests that the number of natural disasters has risen during the past few decades. This trend, combined with the accelerating growth of urban populations, has international aid organizations rethinking how crisis response strategies designed to help rural communities can be adapted for city folk.

More than half of the world's seven billion inhabitants live in urban areas, and that number is expected to grow to 6.3 billion by 2050 (pdf). A century ago, fewer than 20 cities had one million or more residents; there are 450 today. The fastest-growing urban areas are in developing countries in Africa and Asia, generally places without the resources to respond adequately to a natural disaster.

The number of droughts, tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons and floods increased from 78 in 1970 to 348 in 2004, according to the emergency events database maintained by the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.

Over the past 50 years the international aid community has disproportionately responded to families in rural settings more than it has in urban areas because more people were living in the countryside than in cities, says Courtney Brown, director of humanitarian assistance at CHF International, a Silver Spring, Md.–based aid organization operating in 25 countries worldwide. Whereas people living in rural areas can generally work the land to meet their family's needs, urban livelihoods revolve around earning enough money to buy the things needed for survival, he adds.

CHF has been evaluating its crisis response since Haiti's earthquake in January 2010. The magnitude 7.0 temblor struck about 25 kilometers west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, killing about 316,000 people and injuring another 300,000. Nearly one million residents were left without homes, as an estimated 250,000 residential and 30,000 commercial buildings collapsed or were severely damaged.

In the wake of Port-au-Prince's crisis CHF, which has been managing aid programs in Haiti since 2006, initially focused on organizing the removal of rubble from the city and the construction of shelters for displaced residents. The aid organization's work in Port-au-Prince's Ravine Pintade area soon evolved into a program they call Katye, which is Haitian Creole for "neighborhood." Katye incorporated not just the cleanup and the rebuilding of structures, but also long-term planning to create a safer community as well as improve sanitation services, health care facilities and access to drinking water. The program also took into account economic factors with the hope of creating new jobs and other income sources.

Scientific American spoke with Brown about Katye, the impact of natural disasters on rapidly expanding cities and how cell phones may be used to help drought-plagued areas of Africa.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]


CHF has been providing international aid for 50 years. Why did the Haiti earthquake prompt the organization to rethink its approach?
Katye, which is winding down after two years, operated in an especially hard-hit area of Port-au-Prince, where two thirds of the more than 1,000 families were left homeless. The idea behind Katye, which we implemented with help from [relief organization Project Concern International and funding from USAID's [U.S. Agency for International Development] Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, was first to remove rubble and build shelters for the survivors. As we did this, we started to see ways where we could work with the local community to help them rebuild their neighborhood in ways that made it safer than before. This meant creating access roads, improving drainage, setting up market spaces, creating flood protection infrastructure, rebuilding the houses with earthquake-resistant construction techniques, removing waste and delivering water and sanitation services.

So Katye was a way to broaden the number and types of services you provided. In what other areas did you get involved?
Haiti lacks a comprehensive, working system for recording land tenure. According to local estimates, before the earthquake only 40 percent of landowners had documents such as a legal title or transaction receipt. We were able to identify plots of land that people owned but didn't have certificates showing land ownership.

The process was designed to create income opportunities for landholders. In Haiti it is common for people to live informally on plots of land and to pay rent to landowners. Katye formalized what had been an informal system. This included rebuilding houses for landowners and adding a second house on their property as long as they were willing to let a number of displaced families live in this second house rent-free for two years. After two years the landowner can charge rent on that house. This achieved two things: it got families into houses who previously were living in overcrowded camps and also created an economic opportunity for the landowner in the future. We've built about 400 wood and stucco shelters in Ravine Pintade so far.

Port-au-Prince serves as a case study in how disaster relief can be administered to urban areas. In what ways do rural families and urbanites have different needs?
In rural areas there are a couple of assumptions that drive the design of aid programs. One is that a family living in the country will oftentimes produce the food it consumes—not buy it. In the country a family generally lives in close proximity to its food sources. A farmer living in rural Ethiopia, for example, will often cultivate all of the food his family needs, selling only if there is a surplus. And rural families affected by a disaster tend to live independently, on their own plot of land or on a rented plot of land in a house with only their nuclear or extended family.

Responding to a disaster in a rural setting involves making sure a family gets back in sync with the planting season, that they have sufficient seed and fertilizer to put in the ground at the right time. If you miss the rainy season, that farmer and his family are going to rely on food handouts through the next agricultural season. Another important aspect of rural disaster response is restoring a family's living space if it has been destroyed. Shelter has shown itself to be more than protection from the elements. There is a very real and positive psychological impact that accompanies helping a family rebuild its house. In a rural environment rebuilding houses and providing support to reestablish livelihoods is prioritized. From that point forward, the family can usually manage its own recovery process.

What is so different about families living in the city?
These assumptions about subsistence-oriented livelihoods don't hold in an urban setting, where most people live in apartment buildings or multifamily dwellings owned by someone else, and few families grow the food they eat. Urban livelihoods revolve around earning enough money to buy the things needed for survival, whether it's groceries at the local supermarket or medicine at the local pharmacy. The vulnerabilities in urban areas result from an interruption in income and price shocks that make crucial commodities unaffordable. We're seeing this in Yemen, where the cost of bread has increased 75 percent over the past nine months. All of a sudden the families that were buying bread from their local markets can't afford it anymore. There's still bread there to buy, but most people can't afford it.

In urban areas the idea is to provide a small amount of money to families within the first few days of a disaster so they can buy what they need. Then we focus on ways to put family members to work short term with day jobs. In Haiti we hired unskilled labor to remove rubble. So, in addition to clearing away rubble from disaster sites, we offered a way for families to generate income so they could go to the markets and buy the things they need.

What are some of the common mistakes that aid organizations make?
It's important that aid organizations work alongside a community and that the aid that is provided match a community's needs. The community has to buy into the vision of the program or the assistance that is provided doesn't maximize impact. Also the community has to be able to sustainably manage the infrastructure that's put into place during the program. A mistake that's frequently made is providing a community more sophisticated, more advanced infrastructure than it can manage. For example, in the developing world on any given day two thirds of infrastructure that people rely on to access their drinking water is not working. This is because community maintenance and ownership of that water source was not thought through well enough ahead of time. As an example, Afghanistan has a deep water table, so you bring in a borehole driller and sophisticated pump and a generator to create a well. After a certain period of time the community is expected to maintain the well and pump and generator. More often than not, we see that the community doesn't have the resources or the technical understanding to manage these systems. So right beside a sophisticated municipal water system, you have families retrieving water from the river because the system wasn't working. Usually, a simpler, easier to manage technology—like a well with a rope and bucket—is easier and more impactful than a sophisticated municipal water system that has high probability of breaking down.

Urbanization is not the only trend you are seeing in disaster management. How are you using technology to help deliver aid?
In a city, if the infrastructure is damaged by an earthquake or some other event, it can make the logistics of administering aid very challenging. But urban areas aren't the only ones that can create logistical nightmares. The current famine in the Horn of Africa illustrates logistical problems in the rural context. There nomadic families will often move from place to place with the hope of improving their situations and finding water and grasslands for their animals. But in places like Kenya this mobility makes them difficult to reach.

What they do have in Kenya is extensive cell phone coverage—two thirds of Kenyans have a cell phone, or at least a SIM card that they can plug into someone else's cell phone. For the past few years they have been using phone credits—basically air time—as a form of currency. If a family member needs money, [they can be sent] phone credits, which that family member can sell back to their local telecom provider for money or can trade at their local store for medicines, food or clothes.

What does this model mean for the future of humanitarian aid?
By using cellular technologies, we are able to avoid the [necessity of] establishing logistical pipelines to move relief supplies to these outlying populations. Establishing and maintaining these pipelines is expensive. We want to maximize the resources going to people and to limit the amount that goes into "transport and delivery costs."

In the summer of 2011 CHF started the PRESERV [Protecting and Restoring Economic Sustainability to Ensure Reduced Vulnerability] program to use this air-time transfer model to provide aid to these families living in remote areas. By writing down the names and SIM card numbers of those beneficiaries, CHF can then go back to places—Nairobi, for example—and work with mobile phone companies to transfer the assistance via the family's SIM card. This approach avoids expensive logistics costs and maximizes the amount of assistance that gets transferred to the family in need. [Mobile services provider] Safaricom offers one of the most commonly used services in Kenya. The transfer of units is accompanied by an SMS text that informs the beneficiary of how the program works. We think this type of assistance could even be extended to families living in places that are very insecure and inaccessible to aid organizations—places such as southern Afghanistan or Syria.

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