City leaders need to rise to the climate change challenge

City leaders from around the world are meeting in Abu Dhabi for the 10th World Urban Forum on sustainable urbanisation (8-13 February). IIED director Andrew Norton and Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director of UN-Habitat, highlight the need for leaders to work with residents of informal settlements in order to prepare for the impacts of climate change. 

Maimunah Mohd Sharif's picture Andrew Norton's picture
Maimunah Mohd Sharif is executive director of UN-Habitat; Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022
08 February 2020
An open sewer runs in front of homes

An open sewer runs in front of homes in Mukuru informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya (Photo: SuSanA Secretariat, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

As national governments struggle to agree on climate action, city leaders attending the Tenth World Urban Forum (WUF10) in Abu Dhabi this week need to show they can rise to the challenge.
Adapting to climate change is a huge challenge for urban areas around the world. It is particularly significant for cities in the developing world, which are expected to be home to over two billion more people by 2050. 

As these cities grow, they will expand further into areas at risk from sea level rise, flooding and landslides, with poorer residents concentrated in the most hazardous places. Already, many are being hit by disasters that science shows will be more frequent or intense due to climate change. 

More than one billion people – mostly in Africa and Asia – are living in slums or informal settlements that are particularly vulnerable to climate impacts. The women, children and men living in these areas face additional problems due to low quality housing, poor access to public infrastructure and services, and are often politically and socially marginalised. Even a small rise in temperatures has a big impact as homes and workshops have corrugated iron roofs, making them unbearably hot. 

The mayors and governors gathering from around the world have a major role to play in making sure their cities are prepared for the rapidly escalating impacts of climate change.   

Planners will need to use new types of information to guide their investment decisions, including more detailed scientific data on climate trends and how they will affect urban environments, such as whether higher temperatures, sea level rise or river flooding are likely to be the most critical issues for their cities. They will need training and support to use this information to guide their decisions on what infrastructure to prioritise and how to work with residents to reduce these risks. 

Local governments also need to recognise communities’ knowledge of the nature of risks and vulnerabilities in low-income and informal urban centres. It is critical all decisions about how best to adapt cities to climate change involve the people who are most affected. This is crucial to make sure action meets people’s needs and changes behaviour. 

In Mukuru, a large informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, the county government has been working directly with local people to transform the quality of buildings, which will also help the settlement be more resilient to climate change.

Residents have been at the centre of identifying their priorities and what needs to be done. National urban policies – as identified in UN-Habitat’s 'new urban agenda' – play a key role in ensuring local governments have appropriate levels of autonomy and resources to address the climate crisis.

Changes need to include working with nature – or bringing it back into the city by planting trees and developing green spaces to reduce temperatures and flooding as in Gorakhpur, India. Community gardens and urban agriculture have helped reduce flooding, while also improving poor residents’ nutrition and helping them earn money from selling vegetables. 

Reducing risks requires substantial investment, whether to improve coastal defences, drainage, water supplies or for working with nature. It is not just the amount of money, it is also important it is invested where it matters – in and for communities. IIED shows in ‘Money where it matters: designing funds for the frontier’, how a fundamental reform of climate finance distribution, including through locally managed funds and smart municipal national investments, can target finance effectively to meet the poorest people’s climate needs. 

In response, UN-Habitat has dedicated one of its new flagship programmes for the next five to 10 years to support national governments, municipal administrations and communities to mobilise climate investments in and for urban poor communities. 

But this needs to happen alongside improving low-income housing, job opportunities, education and healthcare. City governments must make sure that safe and affordable land is made available for sustainable development of poorer communities and neighbourhoods, for people to improve their own homes, while NGOs and community architects can help to develop affordable designs that can withstand the impacts of climate change. 

Much more needs to be done to address how the climate crisis affects cities, particularly people living in informal settlements. It is crucial they are included in designing the solutions.

This blog was originally posted on the Thomson Reuters Foundation website.