New Research: Rural Urbanization and Disaster Risk in India

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Gretel Follingstad (PhD candidate, University of Colorado Denver) and I have a new article in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction entitled “Urban disasters beyond the city: Environmental risk in India’s fast-growing towns and villages.” We studied 5 fast-growing towns and villages in the mountains of West Bengal, India with some pretty eye-opening findings.

The mountains of West Bengal are exposed to numerous hazards, most importantly landslides and earthquakes. We used Birkmann et al.'s MOVE framework to study household and community risk to these hazards. Numerous factors contributing to disaster risk, most importantly the expansion of the built environment into hazardous areas. In places still governed as rural we found that the number of buildings and paved roadways has increased by 40-80% in the past decade alone. The economy has also shifted, away from agriculture and towards tourism, an industry highly vulnerable to acute "shocks," especially from a major disaster. Lastly, towns and villages are still governed by rural institutions which are largely unequipped to manage urbanization. There is little-to-no regulation of building and development, or coordinated efforts at hazard mitigation.

While urbanization has brought many short-term benefits and increased resilience in some ways, disaster risk is being created and is accumulating in the built environment, and will someday be "released" by a major disaster event. While this is a small-N study, we expect to find similar trends and dynamics in fast-growing villages and towns elsewhere in India. This "hidden urbanization" is a force that is virtually absent from the hazard/disaster research literature.

Please see the abstract of the article below. The full article is available here. If you do not have access to IJDRR, please contact me and I can provide you with a copy.

Abstract

India is one of the fastest urbanizing countries in the world. Although urban scholars tend to focus on India’s large cities, urbanization is also transforming its villages and towns. In this paper we ask how urbanization is shaping environmental risk in five fast-growing towns and villages in the Darjeeling District, a mountainous region in the state of West Bengal. We base our study on the MOVE Framework, a comprehensive and integrative framework for assessing disaster and climate risk. Drawing on primary and secondary data collected over a 3-year period 2015–2017, we find that urbanizing towns and villages are characterized by rapid spatial growth, dynamic and challenging hazard contexts, and limitations in governance capacity or resources to document, govern, or adapt to emerging environmental threats. The risk that is accumulating in the built environment and economy may only be “revealed” after a major disaster, however. These characteristics and trends are likely common in other small urbanizing places and must be managed to achieve national and international goals for sustainable and resilient development.