Disaster resilient cities require resilient communication networks

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) recently launched a scorecard as part of the ‘Making Cities Resilient’ campaign. Primarily targeting local government, the campaign also calls upon civil society and community groups to promote preparation and resilience building in urban areas. The overarching message is that it’s easier and more cost effective to manage disaster risk than it is to manage disaster response. This is a message well communicated in the UNDP Act Now – Save Later video.

The resilient cities scorecard, developed by IBM and AECOM, aims to enable any city to assess its resilience to natural hazards. The tool consists of 80 separate assessment questions, each designed to rate on a 0 to 5 scale an aspect of a city’s preparedness for, and ability to recover from, natural hazards. These questions relate to the ‘Ten essentials’ defined by UNISDR, which should lead to a resilient city. Assessments with higher ratings indicate strengths that the city will wish to maintain; those with lower ratings will denote weaknesses or areas for improvement where the city will need to invest time and perhaps funds to improve.

Communications are highlighted within the Resilient Cities campaign as a crucial area of focus;

‘Communications are arguably the most critical infrastructure of all, because all other infrastructures (as well as factors such as emergency response and public awareness) are likely to depend on them.’

The scorecard rates the processes in place for maintaining back-up power sources of communication networks, protection of communications infrastructure, the predicted ‘Communications loss factor’ (percentage of users who lose service multiplied by the number of days taken to restore service), and cost of restoration. Early warning systems are also scrutinised. The resulting score will allow attention to be focused on areas of potential weakness in the event of a natural hazard.

Resilient communication networks enable not only emergency responders to coordinate action, but first responders and members of the public to share and receive information, early warnings, critical updates, to communicate with loved ones and to engage in their own recovery and emergency response. This week marks the 3rd anniversary since the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. The role of communication during the 2011 disaster is detailed in the Internews Europe report ‘Connecting the last mile’. Highlighting lessons learned, the report identifies where a country with as developed communication networks and access to internet as Japan had strengths and weaknesses. These areas of weakness will be targets for improved resilience building. Whilst the devastation in 2011 was enormous, it’s widely acknowledged that without the levels of investment in disaster management and resilience in Japan prior to the triple disaster, the impact could have been even more catastrophic.

“Building resilient communications infrastructure and restoring connectivity should be at the heart of disaster management planning.”

With over 1700 cities signed up to the UNISDR campaign there is potential for the scorecard to have a positive impact in disaster risk assessment and management around the world. Recent events such as the flooding in the UK and the snow storms across the USA highlight that the risks of natural hazards are not confined to countries traditionally associated with high levels of natural disaster vulnerability, and that urban areas worldwide face new risks, as of yet not fully released, due to climate change. A handbook for the campaign is also available, providing tools, frameworks and lessons learnt. The handbook can be downloaded here.

The Rockefeller Foundation is also working on improving the resilience of urban areas with its 100 Resilient Cities challenge. The foundation, which predicts by the year 2050 that 75% of the world’s population will live in cities, will select 100 cities from around the world out of hundreds of applicants. These cities will receive technical support and resources to enable them to develop and implement plans for resilience. The current list of 33 selected cities can be found here.

Both the UNISDR and Rockefeller Foundation initiatives draw attention to the need for action to prevent the risks of natural hazards becoming disasters in cities around the world. As the proportion of the global population living in urban centres increases, the need to ensure these are resilient to disaster and climate change risks is essential to protect not only those living within them, but the ability of these central hubs to in turn respond to protect those living in rural areas.

This push towards resilience requires an assessment of growing and emerging risks, innovative forward planning and adaption of current practices. Resilient communication networks will be a crucial part of any truly resilient city.

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