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Urban Humanitarian Crises 101

Urban Humanitarian Crises 101

Tilly Alcayna & Furat Al-Murani

Image Credits: Tilly Alcayna

Disasters affecting cities and towns are not a new phenomena. Epidemics, eruptions, floods, and conflict have afflicted numerous settlements throughout history. From the mid-2000s, more than half of the world’s population live in urban compared to rural areas. This urban transition has brought its own opportunities and challenges for civilians and governments, and also the those involved in a disaster response. What we now see is an increasing number of crises occurring in urban contexts. From 2000, major urban disasters have included Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, USA (2005), Haiti earthquake (2010), the tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan (2011), Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban in the Philippines (2013), and the earthquake across the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal (2015). This increasing number of urban crises is necessitating a re-evaluation of standard procedures, established from decades of response to rural disasters by humanitarian organisations and governments.

But what are the main challenges in understanding and responding to urban crises?
Firstly, what constitutes urban? Contrary to popular belief, the majority (90%) of urban populations live in small or medium sized cities, not mega-cities (10 million+ inhabitants). What a rural or urban population is differs from country to country and is relative to population size, density and other administrative factors. Categorisation and composition of a village, town, a city, or a mega-city varies hugely around the globe. Therefore it is very difficult to design response strategies to the urban context which are globally applicable.

Secondly, what is considered an urban crisis? This is highly political. Informal settlements, sometimes referred to as slums, are considered by some to be an ongoing humanitarian crisis. However, they receive relatively little attention compared to the kinds of massive response operations typically following a rapid onset natural disaster, such as an earthquake or a typhoon.

Thirdly, how is a major challenge like climate change going to affect urban areas? Every urban centre is a unique combination of inter-related physical, social, economic and environmental characteristics which will be differently affected by increased unpredictability and variability in the global climate system. Urban areas already have what is called the “urban heat island” effect, where the building and concrete trap heat making urban areas warmer. Changes in mean and extreme temperatures mean that towns and cities are likely to get even more smoggy in the summer. Many urban centres are located along the coast and are going to be submerged by sea level rise. Flooding through clogged sewage systems is occurring more frequently eroding people’s daily living standards.

Fourthly, how to work with the different actors? Urban areas concentrate people and power and are highly dynamic. Towns and cities host numerous actors, have greater resources than rural areas, and are often of political and strategic importance. If government is affected, who should lead? What if groups are purposefully being marginalised? With time-pressure how do we ensure that certain groups aren’t excluded from decision making and response. Importantly, how do we ensure we don’t duplicate work or undermine existing structures?

It is clear that local priorities and modes of working should be the core of all response strategy and programming. Local actors are the first responders, and the ones who remain after international organisations have left. Local actors know the context best, from understanding the needs of communities, to culturally sensitive modes of delivery and recommendations for ensuring longevity. This includes logistical knowledge, the obvious like language and terrain, but more importantly the deep understanding of their socio-ecology that only comes from a prolonged time spent living there. If we continue to respond to disasters like we did in decades gone by, arriving, setting up camp, leading the response, then we ignore the innate value of framing the response through a local lens. Urban crisis response should therefore be led by those who are familiar with their unique urban setting.

This finding was a key part of our recent research in Tacloban (Philippines), Medellin (Colombia), and Juba (South Sudan), looking at how local and international actors collaborate in urban contexts. Where and how disasters affect populations has changed and it's time this is reflected in how we respond to disasters, particularly in the urban setting.

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