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The pandemic and runaway climate change have underlined the urgency to recognise the rights of the urban poor
By Greg Munro, Director of Cities Alliance
Over the last decade the impoverished residents of West Point, the largest seaside slum in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, have had a front row seat on the devastating impacts of climate change.
During this time coastal erosion has shifted the shoreline of the community about 30 meters inland. Rising sea levels have swept away 700 shacks. West Point’s roughly 85,000 residents are examples of the new levels of extreme vulnerability caused when poverty and haphazard urban planning is mixed with radical climate change.
“My house was far from the sea, but every rainy season we face the same problems. When the sea rises, we cannot sleep here. If you see our room, our things are all high up, on tables” says Michelle, 34, a West Point resident and mother of four. During the rainy season two years ago Michelle’s youngest son nearly drowned when a fast-moving tide nearly swept his canoe out to sea. Luckily, a brother rescued the boy before he drifted too far into the ocean.
The vulnerability and dislocations occurring in West Point aren’t unique. The steadily increasing impacts of global warming, compounded with those of the pandemic, are exposing urban inequalities the hard way. Like Michelle, the nearly one billion residents of informal settlements across the world are disproportionately and unjustly bearing the brunt of climate change, greatly compounding their vulnerability.
Up to now ignoring such issues has been easy. But as the climate crisis and urban poverty collide, inaction by wealthy countries becomes harder to justify. The structural cycle of exclusion of the most marginalized communities must be broken if we hope to effectively channel the recovery phase as an opportunity to build cities which leave no one behind.
Cities Alliance is working on key focus areas where informality intersects with climate change that require urgent and concerted action:
Gender equality: From Covid-19 to global warming, me must acknowledge that women often bear the brunt of crises as they are more likely to lose their source of income, are more vulnerable to inadequate service provision and lack of social protection. If we hope to reverse the impact of the pandemic and simultaneously reduce poverty, and create inclusive and resilient cities, making investments that reduce gender inequality should be a priority.
Urban migration: Currently, over 82 million people worldwide have fled their homes. Many are being increasingly displaced by weather-related events. These ‘climate refugees’ frequently move to urban areas, putting considerable additional pressure on local governments already struggling to deliver services for their own residents. Cities should be empowered to include migrants and displaced persons in urban planning, disaster preparedness and climate adaptation strategies.
Access to basic services: Climate change and informality are intertwined causes of urban poverty. Owing to the lack of access to public services and decent housing, informal communities often resort to unsustainable coping strategies like cutting trees for fuel, building onto wetlands, and depleting aquifers by drilling boreholes. Energy solutions for informal settlements that limit the overexploitation of resources, improve solid waste management, and provide affordable and reliable renewable energy are critical.
Resilient infrastructure: While large urban projects can be vectors of economic growth, those that fail to consider their social and environmental impacts may negatively affect people living and working in slums. Climate change requires that slum upgrading projects are designed to help communities withstand hazards and that safeguards are put in place. Well-designed, climate-proof infrastructure that use nature-based solutions and local sustainable materials can unlock economic opportunities. Land tenure issues also deserve greater attention.
Climate financing: Financing from international institutions typically favours large projects. Even when climate funds do reach sub-national levels, slum upgrading is seldom viewed as a priority. Local governments need support to access and leverage new and existing resources that would allow them to meet shortfalls in service delivery and develop sustainable infrastructure. Investments in local climate adaption now will cut future global costs and provide economic payoffs.
A healthy environment is a human right
The pandemic has underlined the pressing need to recognize the rights of the urban poor and to overturn decades of chronic underinvestment that have left them exposed to disease outbreaks and climate impacts.
We cannot afford to continue ignoring people living in urban slums and working in the informal economy. They deserve the same rights as everyone else in our cities, including that of having a healthy environment, newly recognised as a human right by the United Nations.
If we fail to recognize their contribution to our societies and economies, and to fully integrate them into urban and climate planning, reaching the objectives of the global agendas like the Paris Agreement, the SDGs, and the Net Zero target, will be in jeopardy. That’s why we should care.
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