Humanitarian agencies will have to go urban

How many people live and work in a shantytown? How do you map health clinics or water delivery sources in a slum? Humanitarian agencies will be seeking answers to these and other questions as vulnerable populations settle in a sea of shacks on the outskirts of cities and towns across the world in the next few years, a new report forecasts.



Humanitarian Horizons: A Practitioners' Guide to the Future, published by the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King's College, London, and the Feinstein International Centre at Tufts University in the US, is one of two new reports advocating the need for programmes to reduce vulnerability in urban settings. The other is the World Bank's flagship Development Report 2010.



"Half the world's people now live in cities, a share that will rise to 70 percent by 2050," said the World Bank report, citing UN Population Fund statistics. "Of urban population growth (5 million new residents a month), 95 percent will be in the developing world, with small cities growing fastest."



Most humanitarian efforts and aid have been focused on rural development rather than the needs of the urban poor. About 810 million people already live in city slums, battling overcrowding, insecure tenure, landslides, flooding, poor sanitation, unsafe housing, inadequate nutrition and poor health.



The shift to urban programming will "accelerate the already existing trend within the humanitarian system that has agencies offering less in-kind inputs and more cash" to build resilience.



Other than urban earthquake preparedness, humanitarian agencies have not yet focused on emergency response in urban centres. The authors of the guide offer tips to humanitarian agencies in this new environment:



1) Programming has to shift from being rural-focused, so humanitarians will now have to reach out to urban planners for effective urban programming



2) Build a knowledge base identifying the differences between urban and rural programmes



3) Re-identify and reprioritize groups most at risk



4) Use of technologies such as cell phone banking and microcredit to deliver aid in an urban context



5) Ensure the creation of better linkages between city and town authorities, and strengthen delivery systems



The World Bank report also examines the impact of climate change on urban populations. "Low-elevation coastal zones at risk from rising sea levels and coastal surges are home to about 600 million people globally, and 15 of the world's 20 megacities."



The World Bank report lists some useful recommendations of its own:



- Sound urban planning restricts development in flood-prone areas and provides critical access to services.



- Infrastructure developments (embankments or levees) can provide physical protection for many and will require additional safety margins where climate change increases risk.



- Well-established communication, transport, and early warning systems help evacuate people swiftly, as in Cuba, where up to 800,000 people are routinely evacuated within 48 hours when hurricanes approach.



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