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Empowering the urban poor to build climate resilient cities

Tackling extreme poverty is not an easy feat. Yet, if the geographic reality of the entire local population is not addressed, including that of the local poor, then a nation’s ability to adapt to climate change and meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is fraught.

That is why King’s researcher, Professor Mark Pelling is moving away from the traditional method of collecting averages to inform decision-making to giving voice to the marginalised and capacity building initiatives.

He argues: “The local poor understand what it is like to live with poverty. They should be the ones owning the research project and working with local government to affect change.”

Yet Professor Pelling also maintains that while we should celebrate the success of the local poor developing their own solutions, there is still the need for complementary structural solutions.

“There are multiple informal settlements in Nairobi, for example, and while they can be leaders in their community and incite change, there needs to be formal structures, such as local government, in place to connect the various groups.

“You need a holistic approach to climate adaptation because minorities may be left out of a technically-driven approach and great grassroots initiatives might not get the chance to be scaled up.”

Nairobi slums turned climate adaptation leaders

The infrastructure of a city is interconnected. Cleaning the draining system upstream won’t work if the system is blocked downstream. A holistic approach is needed, particularly in the face of climate change.

Part of Professor Pelling’s research on the Urban Africa: Risk Knowledge (Urban ARK) project has taken him to Nairobi, where informal settlements, for example, typically face the risk of flooding – a hazard that is increasing with climate change.

The informal settlements are often located downstream in flood-prone areas. They are also often located on contested private lands, which means they don’t always benefit from risk-reducing initiatives.  

However, in August 2017, the Nairobi City County Government officially announced a multi-sectoral upgrading plan for these settlements, including infrastructure improvements for water and sanitation.

In order to best support the government plan, the Urban ARK research project has been working with Kenyan slum-dweller federation Muungano wa Wanavijiji to create inclusive decision-making spaces and generate evidence to assist policymakers, while maintaining local actors as drivers of the initiatives.

This includes inclusive, participatory responses to risks in informal settlements – ensuring all residents are able to participate in the planning process. In September 2018, residents from four clusters in Muungano wa Wanavijiji prioritised the need to create solid waste management groups, install water kiosks with the utility and undertake regular community clean-ups.

These four clusters have also been trained and empowered to roll out the ‘Action at the Frontline’ tool – a methodology that aims to enhance residents’ disaster preparedness, as well as the quality of grassroots participation in the planning process, and the community’s ability to contribute to effective disaster risk management strategies.

This is just one example illustrating why equity needs to come first when addressing climate adaptation.

To learn more, read Professor Pelling’s comment piece, published in Nature.