You need hardly open a newspaper these days to be acutely aware that natural disasters are becoming a more frequent, devastating reality with which today’s global community is threatened. Many of the world’s cities most at risk are located in coastal areas, making them particularly vulnerable to flooding, tsunamis, earthquakes, storms and other natural disasters. With over half the world’s population living in urban areas and a vast majority of businesses thriving in these cities, many at-risk areas have ‘all of their eggs in one basket’, so to speak. Natural catastrophe is a huge threat to life, infrastructure, and to a nation’s long-term economic well-being.
This list has been drawn up according to data provided by Swiss Re (a Swiss reinsurance company) assessing the most severe natural disasters that 616 of the largest urban areas in the world are facing. In order to rank them, Swiss Re has analysed the potential impact that these disasters may have on the area’s residents as well as on the larger economy.
Swiss Re’s report brings home quite how crucial it is for urban areas to be fully prepared in the event of natural disaster. It’s imperative that these cities are prepared physically, by making the infrastructure as risk-resilient as possible. The governments are also charged with devising a financial plan to make sure that an at-risk city will be able to get back on its feet as best possible after disaster has struck. This means allowing for easy access to relief funds, recovery and reconstruction.
A group of Iranian geologists consider the risk of disaster striking Tehran so high that they have tried to persuade the government to relocate the city to a safer region. This request was denied, but it highlights that the city is a time bomb when it comes to natural disasters. Classified as ‘highly exposed’ to the risk of earthquakes, it has been estimated that 1 million people could be killed if a high magnitude earthquake were to hit the city. Tehran is located over the Northern Anatolian fault, making it particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. Tehran was hit by an earthquake for the last time in 1830, but its building regulations have never been brought up to code for an earthquake-threatened city – the shakiness of the city may prove lethal if disaster recurs.
9. Los Angeles
Los Angeles is the only American city that features among the world’s 10 cities most at risk of being struck by natural disaster. Located on the San Andreas fault, it is one of the most earthquake-prone cities in the world. It has already suffered several hits, most notably the Northridge earthquake of 6.7 magnitude in 1994 which caused 60 casualties. Los Angeles is also particularly prone to flooding which has become worse and worse over the past few years; 14.7 million residents of the area face these threats.
Built on floodplains and river deltas, Shanghai is highly threatened by the risk of flooding. This is the case for many cities in India and China built on similar types of land. Shanghai is a low-lying city that’s slowly sinking – 11.7 million homes would risk severe flooding if the Yangtze river burst its banks. Furthermore, the city is particularly vulnerable to tropical cyclones, which arrive in from the East China Sea and cause massive storms. With a population of around 15 million, Shanghai is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the world. With such a large population and a crucial role as an international financial hub, the economic consequences of a hard-hitting natural disaster here would be wide-ranging and devastating. In August of 2012, 200,000 people had to be evacuated from the city when Typhoon Haikui hit, destroying 4,4 52 homes in surrounding areas.
The East Indian city of Kolkata faces a double threat. First of all, the flooding of the Hooghly river puts over 10.5 million people at risk. Second of all, there is a risk of serious storms if a large-scale tsunami were to hit the north-east coast of India. This could potentially affect 600,000 people. Because of the huge proportion of the city’s residents living in slum housing, a natural disaster would prove to be infrastructurally devastating as these fragile shelters would easily be swept away. Kolkata is one of the most populated Indian cities, meaning that any large scale natural disaster hitting would be catastrophic. Moreover, a lack of adequate sanitation at the city people’s disposal means that in the aftermath of a large-scale disaster, the spread of disease would be facilitated.
The Japanese city of Nagoya is located in the prime Pacific tsunami-risk area. Many Japanese cities are highly exposed to this risk, dotted along the active faults of the western ocean. This tsunami risk threatens 2.4 million people in Nagoya’s urban area. Storms and torrential rain are liable to leave large areas of the city under water – 45, 000 people were evacuated in 2000 when the area suffered its heaviest rain in over a century. Furthermore, Nagoya is at risk of earthquakes with 9.4 million people affected. Nagoya is one of Japan’s economic hubs, so the monetary toll would be crushing if a serious natural disaster occurred.
With 40% of Jakarta sitting below sea level, flooding is a particular risk to the area. The city lies in a flat basin with soft soil – and right near a fault line. As a result, the 17.7 million residents of the urban area face the threat of earthquakes. Earthquakes would potentially further liquify Jakarta’s soft soil, causing the ground to lose its structural integrity. In 2004, an earthquake and tsunami in Aceh nearby led to over 170, 000 casualties, revealing how deadly a natural disaster in this area could be. Unfortunately, experts believe it inevitable that Jakarta will be hit by a strong earthquake in the future.
4. Osaka Kobe
Osaka-Kobe faces the risk of severe storms and flooding, but most seriously the threat of earthquakes. Home to 14.6 million people, the potential damage to life and infrastructure is tremendous. In 1995, an earthquake which hit this city killed thousands of people. Heavy winds and typhoons are capable of generating gigantic waves, making it the third most tsunami-prone city in the world. Unfortunately, the metropolitan area is built on a large coastal plain, placing three million people at risk.
3. Pearl River Delta
With an estimated GDP of $690 billion, the urban area of the Pearl River Delta (including Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Macau and Guangzhou) is one of China’s biggest economic hubs. The zone spans a floodplain and is constantly under threat from a variety of natural disasters: fierce storms, cyclones, typhoons and flooding. To make matters worse, the delta is located in an earthquake-prone zone. In September of 2013, over 3.5 million people were affected by Typhoon Usagi. Attractive due to its healthy economic climate, the urban area is highly populated, home to over 43 million people – so the deadly potential of a natural disaster here can’t be overstated.
Last year, typhoon Haiyan thwarted the Philippines. The devastation and casualties that this brought about revealed the country as one of the most perilous place to be when it comes to natural disasters. Located just off the Philippines trench, the capital city of Manila faces high earthquake, flooding and typhoon risks. Manila is considered the most fragile country in the world economically when it comes to natural disasters; that is, the amount of potential economic damage a natural disaster would cause relative to the country’s national economy is the highest. This means the repercussions of a large-scale natural catastrophe in the capital would be devastating not just in the city – the ripple effects would damage the whole country.
The Tokyo-Yokohama is the riskiest urban area in the world with 37 million residents living under the threat of tsunamis, earthquakes, monsoons and river floods. Cited three times in this list, Japan’s biggest cities are dangerously located along the Ring of Fire – the active faults of the western Pacific. Despite this fact, Tokyo is the most populated city in the world, located on a death-trap. Researchers estimate that approximately 80% of Tokyoites are, at any one moment, potentially exposed to a very large earthquake. The city is at the center of the Japanese economy so any disaster striking it would have tremendous repercussions throughout the country and beyond. It is not, however unprecedented: in 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo and Yokohama, killing 142, 800 people. Tokyo is one of the richer cities on this list, so costly infrastructure is in place to ensure an earthquake would have a minimal impact on the city’s buildings. But with the threat of a high-magnitude earthquake constantly shadowing the city, there is only so much reassurance those measures can provide.
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