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Unjust waters: climate change, flooding and the protection of poor urban communities: experiences from six African cities

Six years ago, at the UN Millennium Summit, world leaders set a specific target for realising the right to adequate housing and ‘continuous improvement of living conditions’. However, in Africa climate change is already threatening that goal, causing massive rural-urban migration and bringing chronic flooding to the cities. This paper explores the impact that climate-induced flooding is having on Africa’s urban poor and argues that urgent action is needed at all levels to help poor people cope with these problems.

The study is based on participatory vulnerability analysis (PVA) conducted with slum dwellers in the six African cities where climate change impact is most predicted: Nairobi (Kenya), Kampala (Uganda), West Africa Lagos (Nigeria), Accra (Ghana), Freetown (Sierra Leone) and Southern Africa Maputo (Mozambique). It finds that: 

  • climate-induced urban flooding has a severe impact on the poor, spreading disease, interrupting schooling and destroying houses, assets and income
  • the effects are particularly severe for women and children
  • there are few, if any, collective mechanisms either for reducing flood risks or for managing floods
  • African Governments have so far failed to realise actions that will help the urban poor.

The authors highlight the need for urgent action by governments and the international community in order to help poor urban people cope with these problems and realise their right to a better life. In particular, they recommend that:

  • flooding should be addressed in all development policy of governments, UN systems, IFIs and NGOs
  • poor people should participate in all decision-making processes regarding flood reduction
  • all possible measures should be taken to realise poor people’s rights to adequate and disaster-safe housing
  • critical services such as health, water and sanitation must be prepared for flooding
  • the Hyogo Framework of Action, agreed at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in 2005, should be implemented at all levels of urban planning and service delivery.