Reducing Urban Disaster Impacts: An Agenda for Everyday Development

February 11, 2016

Urban growth across Africa is estimated at more than 3.5 percent annually – a large proportion of which is occurring in slum areas. Poverty and exclusion from urban services and weak processes of governance are root causes of urban disaster risk. Sound practices in solid waste management are critical tools for urban managers in order to reduce the immediate health costs of waste accumulation and also mitigate a major cause of flood and fire risks. There is room for actors at the community, municipal and higher levels to engage in cost-effective and efficient solid waste management in support of improved community health.

The community of practice under the Urban Africa: Risk Knowledge (UrbanARK) program is exploring how to leverage everyday urban management practices and governance for risk reduction. Solid waste management, access to clean and adequate drinking water and sanitation, economic opportunity and social security are critical components of this agenda. These must be assessed against wider issues including how to provide infrastructure to expanding cities – especially those that are poised to embark on large development projects seeking to meet existing needs.

The UrbanARK program works to assess, and anticipate, the nature, scale and distribution of risk arising from these processes in the city. City actors, NGOs and private sector actors all have a role to play in recasting urban development as an opportunity to reduce risk and avoid the potential impact of disaster. This means considering the full range of risks from acute and chronic crises that could prevent the cities from reaching their full potential.

“Bad sanitation and poor management of solid waste exposes people to risk and a whole spectrum of hazards and disease,” said Dr Blessing Mberu, head of the Urbanization and Wellbeing program at the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC). “Addressing the challenges of solid waste management in urban Africa from policy making, program design and practice for the sake of good health, of community development and of economic growth need no longer to be ignored.”

Jointly hosted by APHRC and UN-Habitat, at the UN headquarters in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on 9 February, UrbanARK stakeholders and scientists met and looked at the relationship between disaster risk and urban development. Nairobi-based stakeholders APHRC, Arup and International Alert presented initial results of Nairobi studies, with comments from city and county agencies. The Kenya Red Cross Society then reflected on how science and policy can collaborate to mitigate risk, building on their field experience over the years.

UrbanARK’s work across five countries in Africa – Kenya, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal – focuses on the risks that confront low-income populations, particularly those in informal settlements. The program seeks to use the evidence generated across the five countries to inform the policy agenda in those countries and beyond, trying to mitigate or control risks to health, economies and growth in the urban areas across the continent. Funded by DFID and ESRC, the three-year program is led by Professor Mark Pelling of King’s College London.

“Understanding the nature and scale of the risks to people, their health and their livelihoods, and how this is changing so dramatically and substantially in the urban environment, can help us develop better strategies to fight poverty and reduce the impact of climate change,” said Pelling. “We are coming together in Nairobi to improve our understandings of the urban context and how we can apply that, together, in partnership to change the lives of urban Africans.”