NAIROBI (Reuters) - About one billion slum dwellers in developing countries are vulnerable to disasters because they live in congested and poorly built houses without emergency services, the Red Cross said in a report released on Tuesday.
Fewer people die from cyclones, floods and earthquakes in countries with planned housing, infrastructure and emergency teams, but lack of financial capacity in developing countries, worsens the impact of disasters.
"A very large deficit exists in the infrastructure and services that reduce disaster risk for much of the population in Latin America, Africa and Asia," said Bekele Geleta, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
"We must bridge this urban risk divide or it will be further exposed in a very cruel way by climate change in the coming years."
The report says that Africa, which is often considered predominantly rural, now has an urban population of 412 million.
"For the first in human history more people live in towns and cities than in the countryside, but the world has not kept pace with this change," Geleta said.
"This is why more people live in slums or informal settlements than ever before which will lead to more people being affected by urban disasters like the terrible earthquake which struck Haiti earlier this year."
Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince is one of the most densely populated cities in Latin America, home to 2 million people.
Its rapid unplanned growth hampered rescue efforts because there were not access roads between streets, just a patchwork of unmarked corridors.
The report criticises major aid agencies for not supporting community-led initiatives which are essential for preventing and coping with disasters.
"The crisis of urban poverty, rapidly growing informal settlements and growing numbers of urban disasters arises from the failure of governments to adapt their institutions to urbanisation," said David Satterthwaite, lead author of the report.
The links between urban poverty and disaster risk will be increased by climate change, the report says.
It adds that between a third and a half of the 2.57 billion residents of developing country cities live in slums. They are mostly at risk because they live in dangerous sites without proper services.
Over half of Africa's 37 biggest cities, each home to more than one million residents, are built on low-lying land.
For example, a sea rise of 50 centimetres would forcibly displace over two million people from the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, the report said.
Population growth and urban violence are also contributing to urban disasters, the report said.
Seismic events, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, killed the greatest number of people between 2000 and 2008, averaging 50,184 people per year, the report said.
Floods disrupted the most lives, with an average of 99 million people affected each year between 2000 and 2008.
Increasingly powerful storms, floods and heat waves brought by climate change will intensify the disaster risks faced by the urban poor, whose numbers are increasing by 10 million per year.