Poverty increases climate risks

The number of urban poor in developing countries that are exposed to the worst heat extremes is set to rise by around 200 million by mid-century, compared to today. The Future We Don’t Want research finds that, with current poverty rates and business as usual greenhouse gas emissions, 215 million urban poor, living in around 500 developing country cities will be exposed to average summertime temperature highs of over 35˚C (95˚F).

The number represents an eightfold increase in exposure as, today, just over 26 million highly vulnerable urban poor live with such high temperatures. A Future We Don’t Want scenario would make meeting national development targets, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, impossible.

Should the world fail to prevent dangerous climate change by missing the Paris Agreement’s 1.5˚C target, the urban poor will bear the brunt of the resulting climate impacts. In this sense, a city is only as resilient as its most vulnerable residents and ensuring that the urban poor have the capacity to respond to climate change must be a priority for city decision-makers.

Climate breakdown disproportionately
affects the poor

Many low-income urban residents live in precariously located informal settlements, characterised by poor-quality housing that is susceptible to climate risks such as flooding, extreme cold or extreme heat. The poor often lack access to essential services such as energy, transport and health and few own land or property. Typically, the urban poor have less job security, low financial reserves and, in many places, lack social safety nets to fall back on in times of crises. These factors make them both more exposed to climate impacts, and less able to deal with them when they occur.

For policymakers there is no easy solution to dealing with large informal settlements and rising numbers of urban poor. Climate resilience is inextricably linked with cities’ wider economic and social development prospects, and its ability to invest in new infrastructure. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s major port city, the municipal government has tried a number of schemes to make the poorest residents more resilient to flooding, with mixed results. The city’s experience highlights well the complexity of the issue.

In 2011, Dar es Salaam was hit by massive floods, as the Msimbazi River, which flows through the city, burst its banks. The Msimbazi valley, is home to a large number of informal settlements, which were destroyed in the deluge, leaving thousands homeless and at least 40 dead. In the wake of the tragedy the municipal government sought to resettle residents, moving them to new areas that are less vulnerable to climate impacts. However, the resettlement process did not go smoothly.

“When we re-settled people into new areas they stay for a while and then go back to their original homes,” explains Grace Mbena, Principal Town Planner at Dar es Salaam City Council. “People wanted to live closer to the city centre; they do not have access to transport and so need to be close to markets, hospitals and their businesses.”

Learning from this experience, Dar es Salaam, instigated the Community Infrastructure Upgrading Project (CIUP). Unlike the resettlement programme, this project focused on upgrading infrastructure in poorer areas, regardless of whether or not they are flood prone. The city hoped that this would at least limit the effects of future floods. However, this project has also faced challenges. “Once we upgraded the infrastructure in an area, higher income residents would buy the homes,” said Mbena, “the poorest people would then move to areas that are at even greater risk.”

“We have realised that we need to take a city-wide approach to resilience building. But we need support to protect the whole city, our resources are limited.” – Grace Mbena, Principal Town Planner, Dar es Salaam City Council

The CIUP is now getting phased out and the city is trying another approach, known as the Dar es Salaam Metropolitan Development Project (MDP). The MDP has a wider focus, taking a city-wide, systems approach to investment. It is hoped that investment in strategic infrastructure, as well as catchment management, will contribute to the overall economic development and resilience of the whole city.

Climate change is a driver of migration

Not only does climate change make it harder for the poor already living in cities to climb out of poverty, it also drives more people into urban poverty. One way that it does this is through climate-driven migration from rural areas. In the decade to 2010, migration accounted for almost half of the world’s urban population growth. This translates to around one third of urban growth in sub-Saharan Africa and a considerably higher figure in Asia.

Higher temperatures and water shortages in rural areas can reduce agricultural yields and result in crop failures, which forces rural populations to abandon farming and migrate to cities. Many new arrivals settle in slum areas and rapidly growing at-risk areas.

While it is true that not all migrants to urban areas are poor, and that migrating to an urban area can provide poor residents with greater economic and social opportunities, a disproportionate amount of the urban poor are migrants. Climate-driven migration threatens to put more pressure on already-strained city services and urban planning processes, increase the total number of people living in poverty, and affect the resilience and economic outlook of cities.

When migration is rapid, it can be difficult for cities to accommodate new arrivals in formal housing. In Peru’s capital city, Lima, the population has swelled by 600 percent since 1960.Migration has caused the city to sprawl across a coastal desert plain and up along the Andean foothills. New settlements are often self-built and situated on riverbeds, or on steep and unstable slopes, making them especially vulnerable to climate impacts. In March 2017, Lima suffered severe rainfall that caused widespread flooding and triggered massive landslides. Informal settlements were badly affected; more than 100 people lost their lives, and a further 150,000 urban residents were displaced. In total 210,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.

“If we plan properly for climate-driven migration, then it does not need to be the problem that it is often portrayed as. If people are empowered to migrate with dignity, it can be a great opportunity.” – Dr Saleemul Huq, Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development

Migration is an adaptive response to climate change. In the future, many people will need to move to avoid the worst climate impacts and policy makers should plan for such migratory pressures on cities. One country that is taking steps to do just that, is Bangladesh. There, more than 10 million people living in the at-risk coastal zone, are expected to have to leave their homes and move inland because of sea level rise and coastal flooding.

Recognising that the country’s capital of Dhaka, the world’s fastest growing megacity, will struggle to cope with large numbers of new migrants, the government is planning to expand 12 small cities, making them migrant-friendly and developing each to provide homes and economic opportunity for 1 million migrants.

Empowering the poor to build resilience

Several other cities have also put in place measures to increase the ability of their most vulnerable citizens to respond to climate change. In so doing, they increase the resilience of the entire city. A crucial first step in this process is often to produce risk maps that identify the city’s most vulnerable areas and citizens.

In the Egyptian capital of Cairo, the non-profit Ecocity Builders has piloted the Eco-Citizen World Map project, which aggregates environmental and social data to identify at-risk neighbourhoods. Based on surveys, this mapping exercise helps local residents gather data about their own parts of the city. This provides new information, previously unavailable to authorities and helps them plan infrastructure investment. 

“Existing city level data is not very granular; this bottom up approach is very valuable to local government because it provides them with previously unavailable information about different areas of the city.

“Vulnerable communities collect city data themselves. The process gives them a voice and puts them on the map, often for the first time.” – Kirstin Miller, Executive Director, Ecocity Builders

Projects such as the Eco-Citizen World Map, establish a means of communication between vulnerable communities and the local government. Crucially, it also enables cities to apply for external funding for these projects, since they can approach donors and other investors with map-based, credible evidence.

Like the Eco-Citizen World Map project, the value of open dialogue between government and vulnerable communities is also evident in Ghana’s capital Accra. There, the People’s Dialogue on Human Settlements is a project set up by a network of community-savings groups in poor neighbourhoods. An initiative which has resulted in a series of joint projects between communities and the local government that aim to address urban poverty, unemployment, and homelessness.

As the UN rightly notes, “the urban poor have a proven capacity to improve and invest in their communities,” and they are often best placed to protect their neighbourhoods from worsening climate impacts. Cities that engage in an open dialogue with vulnerable communities can often find innovative, sustainable ways to build climate resilience. Ensuring that urban policies and climate adaptation plans are developed not just with the poor in mind, but with poor communities on board, is essential for climate policies to be effective over the long term.

This content is from 2018. View the full “The Future We Don’t Want” report.