Mind the risk: cities under threat from natural disasters

The world's sprawling cities are centres of economic activity and growth. But when a natural disaster hits a densely populated area, the effects can be catastrophic. A Swiss Re study looks at the human and economic risks faced by urban communities around the globe.

For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than in rural areas. Many of these metropolitan areas are threatened by floods, storms, earthquakes and other natural hazards. As people continue to move to the cities and businesses invest locally, more lives and assets concentrate in disaster-prone areas. Strengthening the resilience of these communities is therefore becoming a matter of urgency.

Mind the risk: A global ranking of cities under threat from natural disasters (PDF, 5.1 MB) is both a conversation starter and a call for action. Based on Swiss Re's risk models and detailed hazard data available in CatNet®, the report provides a global risk index comparing the human and economic exposure of 616 cities around the world. Together, these are home to 1.7 billion people and produce a combined GDP of USD 35 trillion, half of the world's total economic output.

The study shows that floods endanger more city residents than any other natural peril, followed by earthquakes and storms. When they occur, they can affect millions of people and significantly disrupt the economy. Urban dwellers in Asia's megacities are especially at risk, with Tokyo, Manila and Hong Kong-Guangzhou topping the population-at-risk index. Although smaller in size, European and US cities could also face huge economic repercussions in the event of a major disaster. Amsterdam-Rotterdam, Los Angeles and New York all feature in the top ten cities with the highest loss potential.          

Protecting lives should be the highest priority for city authorities seeking to improve their disaster preparedness. But another important part of resilience is how well urban societies are able to cope with the financial consequences of a disaster. Mind the risk is a basis for local decision-makers, the insurance industry and the broader public to promote dialogue on both fronts and work towards making cities truly resilient.

Published 18 September 2013

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Posted by Urs Leimbacher on 19 Aug 14

This study listing 616 cities at risk is a great door-opener to building awareness amongst mayors and other city officials that a systematic approach to analysing and managing their risks is simply good governance. I hope that the insights from this study will contribute to both stimulating and information the discussion about how urban resilience can be enhanced.