Urban Resilience: Challenges and Opportunities for African Cities

January 21, 2016


African leadership gather at the Understanding Risk Finance Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


ADDIS ABABA, January 21, 2016 – Various city representatives gathered for a special breakout session during the recent Understanding Risk & Finance Conference to discuss resilience, the challenges and opportunities for African cities, and share experiences on strengthening resilience.

“Our cities are projected to play an increasing role in the economic transition,” said Mayor Ato Deriba Kuma, mayor of Addis Ababa “Strengthening urban resilience to multiple shocks and stresses will therefore prove crucial to the success of this transition and to ensure improved living conditions for residents.”

Moderated by Dr. Ibidun Adelekan, senior lecturer in Ibadan University of Nigeria, the session saw an overwhelming response from an audience who not only engaged in lively discussions but raised many questions on understanding the meaning of resilience for African cities and how it can be achieved. Throughout the discussions, five overarching points emerged::

  1. Rapidly urbanizing environments in Africa present both a challenge and opportunity. Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent in the world. With an average urban growth of 3.4%, the continent’s urban population is projected to reach 1.2 billion by 2050. This means 60% of all Africans will be living in cities, up from 40% . Such rapid growth is commonly accompanied by challenges such as food and water shortages and inadequate housing and infrastructure. However, with such a large proportion of the urban environment yet to be built, African cities also represent an unparalleled opportunity to avoid past mistakes and embed resilience in policies and planning. Urbanization can either act as a driver of risk, or mitigate it.
  2. At the same time, the interdependence of urban risks requires an integrated multi-sectoral approach. Urban areas are complex with highly interdependent systems. Failing systems can result in cascading impacts that disrupt the availability of clean water, electricity, and communications. Such cascading events combined with a high concentration of populations and investments at risk can quickly result in catastrophic impacts. The drivers of urban risk are the result of a complex interaction of local, regional, and global pressures that often extend beyond the administrative bounds of a given city. Urban systems, therefore, demand special focus within a new framework that works in an integrated manner.
  3. Diagnostic tools that support a cross-sectoral, multi-stakeholder approach provide a first step in helping cities to efficiently identify and tackle existing risks, and unlock opportunities. New methods and analytical tools, such as The World Bank’s City Strength Diagnostic and UN-Habitat’s City Resilience Profiling Tool (CRPT), allow for systematic and evidence-based understanding of urban risks and planning for resilience. In Chókwè, Mozambique, city officials piloted UN-Habitat’s CRPT, which enabled local governments to identify multiple risks facing their city over short, medium and long-term horizons, and, critically, to understand the interconnected nature of these risks. Having a population of just over 55,000, Chókwè is a small city that is extremely vulnerable to flood and cyclone hazards. Large portions of the town were completely inundated by the 2013 floods. Mayor Lídia Frederico Cossa Camela, who participated in the session, emphasized that “the process of developing the City Resilience Action Plan has helped to empower local authorities, raise public awareness and enhance the participation of urban residents in decision-making to combat risk.”
  4. To put the resilience agenda into action, cities in Africa will need to mobilize resources from public and private sectors, domestic and international. The acute and cumulative effects of disasters generate major economic and fiscal losses on the individual, community to national level. These events can undermine hard-earned development gains, trap the most vulnerable groups in poverty, and exacerbate inequality. Teresina Brazil, Mayor Firmino Filho, mayor of Teresina, Brazil, provided the example of  how this previously flood prone city of 844,000 residents was able to mobilize support for an integrated urban water management multi-layered project, which tackles urban flooding through drainage infrastructure. The program creates green areas to mitigate the effects of urban flooding, improves water supply, enhances sanitation services, and encourages the regeneration of urban areas to promote economic development and leisure opportunities. As a result of the investment, the city has seen land value appreciation and growth of the local economy. As cities move from diagnostic phases to implementation, they will need strong government leadership and coordination across the national to local level; scaling up of bottom-up, locally managed funds such as community saving groups; engagement of the private sector; and technical expertise to develop a range of innovative financial instruments.
  5. In an increasingly urban world, the major resilience challenges of this century—poverty reduction, natural hazards and climate change, environmental sustainability, and social inclusion— will be won or lost in cities. With commitment from leaders, partners, and citizens, African cities can  lead the resilience agenda, and  spearhead the economic and social transformations necessary for reducing poverty and boosting shared prosperity.

Next year’s Understanding Risk Conference will take place May 16-20, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. For more information, visit the GFDRR site.