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Cities Must Plan for Climate Disasters: 5 Considerations for Sendai


Kobe Earthquake
Kobe, Japan 1995 (Photo credit: Mashahiko Ohkubo)

Key Takeaways:

SHARE THISThe UN Disaster Risk Reduction Conference is meeting in Sendai, marking 20 years since the $100 billion Kobe earthquake.
SHARE THISWith ~3/4 of a nation’s GDP coming from urban areas, resilient cities are critical to economic well-being.
SHARE THIS53% of Asia’s population now lives in cities, making urban climate change resilience a crucial focus for Sendai.


On an ordinary morning in January 1995, the city of Kobe, Japan shook for less than a minute. By the time the tremors subsided, one of the most powerful earthquakes in recent history had already destroyed bridges, expressways and buildings, and within several hours, claimed over 6,400 lives. The quake’s magnitude and the fact that it occurred in close proximity to a highly populous urban center were a deadly combination.

Twenty years later, the international community is meeting in Sendai, a region that has witnessed disasters including Kobe and, more recently, the Fukushima earthquake-nuclear catastrophe, whose after-effects continue to this day. At the third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR), they will deliberate on a new intergovernmental framework for disaster risk reduction for the next decade – and a new roadmap for building resilience.

For the past eight years, The Rockefeller Foundation has spearheaded the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), an initiative to strengthen the capacity of over 40 cities across Asia to prepare for a range of impacts resulting from climate change and urbanization. We believe that this work offers an important base of experience that can inform the next global disaster agenda, and enrich discussion in Sendai and beyond.

Here are five things we shouldn’t forget for Sendai: 

  1. Urban contexts are different. In Asia, 53% of the population now lives in cities, and in each year the rate of rural to urban migration is accelerating. Urban issues deserve special attention because of the concentration of populations and investments at risk. Cities have complex and interdependent systems for everything from water supplies and waste management to telecommunications, and, when they fail, often have unthinkable, cascading consequences like the disasters in Fukushima. Reducing risk and building resilience for our cities will require a different approach.
  2. Give cities the power to act. The impact of disaster plays out differently in every locality. It’s important that those who are closest to the impact of disaster have the knowledge, technical capacity and tools to act. Also vital are enabling policies and programs, regulation for land use and construction, strong institutions that can coordinate, and the necessary financing to enable local governments to prepare for an event. The reality is that many cities don’t have access to budgets until a disaster occurs – this makes preparedness and forward planning difficult to coordinate and execute. In Surat, India, through the ACCCRN project, diverse departments and stakeholders formed city teams that were able to coordinate and plan together. Later, they also formed a “special purpose vehicle” that became an innovative funding mechanism to flexibly fund resilience planning.
  3. What happens in cities matters. Threats to cities should make national leaders, ministries of finance and investment agencies particularly nervous. Why? Because cities are the engines of national economies, on average producing 70-80% of a nation’s GDP. Cesar Purisima, the Philippines’ Secretary of Finance, said in an urban resilience conference in 2014 that the economic impact of Typhoon Haiyan opened the finance ministry’s eyes to the country’s fiscal vulnerabilities. Disaster management for cities is integral to the growth targets and economic wellbeing of entire countries.
  4. Climate Change is giving rise to a host of new risks. Because of climate change, threats such as cyclones and typhoons are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity. They will have the biggest impact on coastal zones where many of the region’s cities are located, and no one can predict with certainty what the next climate event will be or when it will hit. While a fairly established base of practice exists on how to respond to floods and storms, we know considerably less about how to handle other climate-related shock events like heat waves, which are not conventionally thought of as disasters and often fall outside the purview of most disaster management authorities. Climate impacts are on the rise and should be given due attention in disaster planning.
  5. Combined, climate change and urbanization are forces to be reckoned with. It’s difficult to tease apart which impacts result from climate change and which are exacerbated by urbanization. But we do know that the combined impact of both phenomena pose a danger. Local stakeholders need to be able to interpret climate information, and understand what it means when climate change intersects with urbanization-related factors such as shifting demographics, adaptive capacities, and land use.

We know that the international framework is only the beginning, and that many other elements will also be critical to building resilience to climate disasters in cities. The factors that will matter are national policy and fiscal commitment, awareness of the need to build risk reduction, and an ongoing assessment of progress. The intergovernmental disaster agenda will also be more effective if it is joined with the climate (COP 21), urban (HABITAT III) and post-2015 sustainable development goals to be refined globally over the course of the next year.

To find a wealth of experience on urban climate change resilience and to learn more about the Asian Climate Change Resilience Network, please visit The Foundation-supported program was launched into a network that now welcomes membership from practitioners and institutions who have an interest in exchanging experiences and connecting together to build inclusive and sustained climate change resilience in Asia.

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