Slum fires highlight urban preparedness gap

When fires swept through three Nairobi slums from January to March this year, leaving an estimated 25,000 people homeless, authorities and agencies were slow to respond.



Fires are common in Nairobi’s slums but urban disasters receive a “baffling” lack of response from aid agencies, indicating major gaps in urban crisis preparedness, says the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA.



According to the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), 60 percent of Nairobi’s population lives on 5 percent of the land. The city’s overcrowded slums and informal settlements, constructed from cheap materials like corrugated iron and connected to hazardous electricity lines, make them particularly vulnerable to fire. Access roads are few, making passage difficult for fire trucks.



Fires are not the only risk prevalent in low-income urban areas. OCHA highlights terrorism attacks, floods, social conflicts, disease outbreaks, insufficient access to water and sanitation, high risk of gender-based violence and food insecurity as some of the major issues facing urban communities.



Most of the world’s people now live in cities. As urban development accelerates, the proliferation of informal settlements, declining ecosystems and failing infrastructure increase the vulnerability of inhabitants to disasters. ISDR estimates that eight out of 10 of the most populous cities in the world can be severely affected by an earthquake, while six out of 10 are vulnerable to storm surges and tsunamis. A 2006 report by UN-Habitat said slum populations accounted for more than 70 percent of the urban population and are estimated to grow at a rate of 27 million per year between 2000 and 2020.



Finding the tools



While rural disasters have clear response plans in place, none is available for urban disasters. Choice Okoro, senior humanitarian affairs officer for OCHA, told IRIN it was important to develop appropriate information systems and tools for urban areas.



“In Nairobi for instance, if you want to do an assessment for a slum like Mathare, you see it’s a spatial issue. You have the most affluent and the poorest together in the same district and if data is aggregated, it looks good - the affluent side balances the poorest. So you don’t see the needs.



"I think also there is a general perception that urban areas are places of economic development. You can locate IDPs in rural areas, but [in] urban areas, how do you [know] who is an IDP? We need to find the appropriate tools. The challenge here is not a deliberate unwillingness to provide humanitarian support.”



A number of agencies, including UN-Habitat, frequently highlight the resilience and knowledge of communities as a factor to consider when planning urban disaster responses, rather than excluding their expertise from emergency planning. “Community leaders should be at the centre of relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction,” said Jean-Christophe Adrian, country programme manager for UN-Habitat in Haiti.




Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
Urban disasters lack clear response plans (file photo)

While Haiti is facing a unique set of challenges in reconstructing Port-au-Prince after the 2010 earthquake, lessons learnt could be applied to disaster-prone urban areas in Africa, such as developing flood-mitigation measures and improving basic services for slum dwellers. In response to the fires in Nairobi, Amnesty International called on the Kenyan government to ensure essential services in informal settlements, including access roads, safe electricity and water and sanitation.



Long-term development measures are fundamental to building urban preparedness to disasters, says Okoro. “After two days, we didn’t even know where the displaced communities in the Nairobi fires went, because these are informal settlements. If you have thousands displaced, where do you house them after the fire? Then there are other longer-term concerns. We talk of resilient communities. But if you rebuild the same structure again, is that resilience?



“We have also food insecurity. In urban areas... the amount of money needed for food is very high compared to rural areas. Increases in food prices have a direct impact on communities in urban areas, especially informal settlements. This puts communities in a chronic and constant state of emergency.” OCHA is working to mainstream urban disaster preparedness into humanitarian response.



Corruption issues



But some see the lack of urban resilience in many cities as testimony to “poor planning, corruption and negative attitudes” . After a panel in March organized by the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Kampala and Yaoundé joined the campaign, Making Cities Resilient. It seeks to raise awareness among politicians and the public and to incorporate 10 essential actions into city planning, including assigning a budget for disaster risk reduction, preparing risk assessments, maintaining critical infrastructure and creating public education programmes in schools and local communities.



Allen Kisige, a representative of Kampala City Council, said: “One of the biggest impediments in addressing urban sustainability is corruption and the general lack of political buy-in” – another issue the campaign hopes to address.



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