How risk accumulates in African cities – and ways to break the cycle

David Dodman

At a meeting of community organisations in Ibadan, Nigeria, local government officials and academics explored how to deal with the risks facing Africa’s urban poor. Challenging long-held assumptions about how African cities work – and who holds the power – will be key to tackling the build-up of risk.

African cities can be risky places. From the everyday threats of infectious diseases and traffic accidents, to dangers as diverse as collapsing buildings and exploding oil tankers, people living in urban centres negotiate a range of hazards on a daily basis.

Over the last two years, the Urban Africa: Research and Knowledge (Urban ARK) research programme has shown that the actual events causing injury, loss of life and damage to property in cities occur as a result of an accumulation of risk.

When growth outstrips provision

When a city’s growth outruns its local government’s capacity to provide water, sanitation, solid waste collection, health care and other services, it becomes an increasingly hazardous place to live and work.

To break this cycle and prevent risk from accumulating, we need to understand how knowledge of risk can lead to action to reduce it. It needs community organisations, local government officials and politicians, and the academic community to work together.

A meeting in Ibadan, Nigeria, brought together these different groups from eight cities across the continent and explored what breaking the risk cycle would look like in practice. Over the course of two days, participants discussed the factors that can create risk for low-income urban residents and communities, and how to stop the build-up.

What creates risk in low-income and informal settlements? 

First, risk arises where a hazard occurs and people are exposed to the consequences. Many low-income neighbourhoods are located in places affected by landslides or flooding. But without proper water supplies or sanitation facilities, risks from infectious and parasitic diseases – the leading cause of premature death in informal settlements – can also quickly multiply.

Second, while residents of more affluent cities benefit from risk-reducing infrastructure such as pipes supplying safe water to their homes, drains and flood protection, infrastructural developments can actually expose Africa’s urban poor to greater risk.

The Nairobi-Thika superhighway has opened up new areas for business and decreased journey times, but the huge amount of land required for its construction has displaced settlements and affected drainage and air quality. Other large infrastructural developments in cities, including large shopping malls, create similar risks.

Underlying many of these risks is the hostility shown by many governments towards low-income groups. As Bimbo Oshobe from the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation explained: “Our members don’t have problems with floods, because our members in riverine areas know how to build our homes; but we have problems with government and with local chiefs”.

Indeed, in many cases the scale of destruction of homes and the impacts on the lives of residents would classify government-supported evictions as major disasters. The October 2016 evictions at Otodo Gbame in Lagos, Nigeria, destroyed 2,400 structures, displaced more than 30,000 people, and led to at least 11 deaths from drowning.

Putting knowledge into action

But understanding risk is only useful if it leads to action to reduce it. Practitioners and researchers across Africa are trying to understand what helps and what hinders in preventing the accumulation of risks.

Several approaches have already demonstrated how this can be done.

Strengthening the evidence base: Better evidence can challenge the narratives that evictions or relocation are necessary in order to avoid particular hazards. Work by the Kounkuey Design Initiative in Kenya shows how the actual areas of low-income settlements beside rivers likely to be affected by flooding are smaller than those that governments want to clear, meaning that fewer households need to move to protect lives.

Instead of simply trying to ‘translate’ their findings for practitioners and policymakers, researchers need to work with communities and local government officials from the very beginning of the research process to identify problems and the best way to investigate them.

New approaches to building capacity: The ‘capacity-building workshop’ is a staple of NGO and academic activities in Africa. But capacity building needs to transcend training workshops and engage much more with data collection and analysis, turning evidence into knowledge, and providing technical and financial resources. Researchers need to recognise their own shortcomings in understanding the complex social, political and economic situations of informal settlements.

Bottom-up collaboration: Key to all these approaches is working with organised groups of low-income urban residents and drawing on their knowledge and capacity. In Nairobi, the Akiba Mashinani Trust and Shack/Slum Dwellers International have supported the Kenyan Homeless People’s Federation to use door-to-door numbering, household interviews and satellite images to produce detailed community maps for informal settlements.

Combining these with hazard mapping activities, planners and policymakers have the evidence they need to work with local organisations to remove the underlying drivers of risk in ways that strengthen livelihoods and wellbeing for low-income groups.

Reimagining African cities: structures and power

Perhaps the most fundamental and yet most challenging part of tackling spiralling urban risk is confronting the structures of African cities at their very core.

Many are predominantly informal – in land access, economic activity and decision-making. These informal systems are powerful but not easily captured by urban planning tools, budgeting, donor priorities or research agendas. Meeting the ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals to make cities safe, inclusive and resilient calls for a frank conversation about where the power lies to make a difference.

These are challenging but exciting times for African cities. Urbanisation is closely linked with economic growth, and the future for Africa’s residents depends on the future of its cities.

The choices made now will have long-lasting implications for urban risk and resilience. Which is why it is so important to get these decisions right.

David Dodman is a Co-Investigator of the ESRC-funded project Urban Africa: Risk Knowledge (Urban ARK), a three-year research programme examining disaster risk management in a selection of African cities. This blog post was cross-posted from the project website, where more information about Urban ARK can be found.