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From Agenda 21 to COP21: Addressing resilience in cities and informal settlements

By Omar Siddique, Senior Urban Specialist, Cities Alliance

Chapter 7 on ‘human settlements’, which emerged from the first Rio Conference in 1992, received huge political push back from developing countries and environmentalists at the time of the negotiations over the text. Issues regarding cities and settlements were seen as part of the polluting, unsustainable “brown sector” at the time, as opposed to interventions in the “green sector” focusing on environmental conservation and preservation, as well as efforts to keep people in rural areas from moving to cities. Clearly, today we would see this as an antiquated dichotomy. However, it was only through the insistence of influential UN member states participating in Rio that issues of human settlements were put on the environmental agenda.

Fast forward from Agenda 21 to COP21 and we see an almost complete reversal. Issues of cities and informal settlements are central to the discussion on promoting resilience and meeting climate change goals, with developing countries such as Bangladesh and the Philippines leading that charge at both national and international for a, as well as in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) under the Paris Climate Agreement. This effort has been bolstered by the promulgation of the SDGs, which seek to align action on poverty reduction and resilience, notably through SDG11.

Informal settlements today

Poor settlements, whether they are informal or formal, have a higher exposure to many climate change impacts, as they are often located on lower level land that is already more prone to flooding. They are therefore likely to be at higher risk from either sea level rise or storm events. Examples of this include the West Point slum in Monrovia, Liberia or the relatively newer slum areas along the canals of Kolkata, India. The urban poor often do not have the luxury of choosing where to site their homes, so are more vulnerable than those who can choose to live in a less exposed part of the city. The housing materials of the poor in cities are often less robust and are therefore less likely to withstand extreme weather events and associated impacts. This increases the vulnerability of the poor, as the level of impact is proportionately higher than for those in more robust houses that may receive only a small amount of damage during extreme events. The provision of services such as electricity and power, sanitation and fresh water are frequently inadequate for informal settlements, particularly in comparison to wealthier populations in the same cities. These services contribute to the adaptive capacity and level of vulnerability of the poor areas.

The working poor in many cities are more likely to be engaged in activities outside, predominantly unprotected from the weather. This greatly increases their exposure to temperature changes and extreme weather events such as heat waves. For example, street vendors and rickshaw drivers in cities such as Mumbai, Bangkok and Phnom Penh must continue to work unprotected during days of extreme temperatures in order to earn their livelihood. Alternatively, some workplaces, such as local markets or informal factories, are located close to the worker’s home and are themselves severely impacted by any extreme event. Should these workplaces be closed for any period of time, the incomes and livelihoods of the poor are directly affected. If their workplaces are on the other side of the city, the urban poor must rely on transport that may be impacted by extreme climate events – again, potentially threatening their income and livelihood. Thus for a variety of situations, the poor are more sensitive to potential climate change impacts, as any change may affect their incomes and livelihoods.

Moving forward

To enable greater progress it is necessary to more systematically address security of tenure issues and include corresponding safeguards in resilience policies and procedures, including those of the vertical climate funds. Many of the forced evictions we have witnessed of late in West African cities have been carried out in response to “resilience shocks” including flooding and sea level rise.

Tenure security for the urban poor is an essential element in building community resilience and addressing urban inequalities. If households headed by both men and women enjoy secure land and housing, they are also more likely to plan ahead and invest in resilience measures. Adapting existing housing to current and future climate threats is usually simpler and more effective than relocating communities. Participatory incremental upgrading and complimentary capacity development investments strengthen resilience while allowing residents to remain in place without disruption. If resettlement of people located on genuinely unsafe hazard-prone land is a potential option, cities and their partners need to be stronger in integrating these land tenure issues and need to better understand the implications of decisions on voluntary resettlement of slum dwellers under their resilience interventions.

Photo credit: “South Africa – eThekwini field trip on faecal sludge management” by Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) licensed under CC BY 2.0