When you get flooded, you don’t call the president, you call your mayor

When you get flooded, you don’t call the president, you call your mayor

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Date: 2nd June 2013
Author: Ali Cambray
Type: Feature

Ali Cambray, CDKN’s Head of Country Support, and Sub-national and Urban Lead, reflects on the Resilient Cities 2013 Congress, held in Bonn this weekend

In a month when atmospheric CO2 reached 400ppm for the first time and yet the political momentum for a global climate change deal in 2015 is still far from reach, it is somewhat of a relief to be one of 500 like-minded delegates at Resilient Cities.  This annual event brings together mayors, officials and practitioners from across the spectrum of the world’s cities and municipalities – from Tokyo to Tevragh-Zeina, Mauritania (population 48,000).

Over half the world’s population, including one in seven of the world’s poorest people, already live in cities and urban areas.  The number continues to rise, putting serious pressure on infrastructure and resources, not just within the city but far beyond the boundary.  Did you know that the average morsel of food eaten in a US city travels 3,000 miles to get there, and about a third of food is thrown away?  Meanwhile, rapid urbanisation in developing cities degrades surrounding peri-urban forest, agricultural and rangelands and leads to real challenges for urban food security and livelihoods.  How to feed the world’s cities was a key theme this weekend; delegates were even treated to a reception dinner made from locally sourced vegetables that would otherwise be discarded...it actually tasted great!

So many different cities are represented here, and each has their own unique context and story.  There are some common themes, though.

First, each city and urban area, large or small, North or South, talks of increased frequency and severity of extreme weather, and of climate trends leading to impacts in water, food and energy availability.  It is clear that for the world’s cities, there is an urgent need for action to build adaptive capacity and resilience for the current climate, let alone for the future.

Second, cities and urban areas want to be the solution, not the problem.  As one delegate put it, “when you get flooded or the water runs dry, you don’t call the president, you call your mayor”.  The ability of cities to take action varies widely, with some having full autonomy over policies, funding and the surrounding metropolitan areas.  Others, in countries with more centralised government, find this more challenging. From rooftop vegetable growing in New York to working with informal settlements in India to increase flood resilience, there is a positive buzz and energy here that city dwellers will make the difference.  For the donor community there was also a challenge – too many donors focus only at national level and were urged to do more work, and provide more direct funding streams, for cities.

Third, solutions are about engaging with city dwellers themselves, in formal and informal settlements.  There is no point in building a sophisticated vulnerability assessment  if people don’t trust the underlying data, the results are not presented in a way that is meaningful for them to understand, the recommendations aren’t owned by decision-makers, or actions not practical on the ground.  Every city talks about the importance of local leadership and participatory approaches to resilience.

Fourth, resilience means different things to different city dwellers.  Take an urban river that floods annually.  Slum dwellers below the embankment are flooded regularly.  Every year they move up and down with the water mark.  Meanwhile, a wealthy home owner at the top of the embankment is flooded  in an extreme storm event one year for the very first time.  Who is the most vulnerable?  Who is the most resilient?  Perhaps the wealthy home owner, if they had insurance cover.  Or perhaps the slum dweller, although of course the instability caused by the frequent flooding reduces their resilience in other areas, such as access to food, energy and livelihoods.

Finally, cities and urban areas have potential for impact in several ways.  Yes they can build low carbon and climate resilient communities and economies in their own right.  But more excitingly, because cities are part of an interconnected system connected with their surrounding landscape and beyond, they can serve as models for innovative approaches that can be scaled up, replicated at national level and, we hope, build momentum towards that distant global climate deal.  Fingers crossed.

CDKN is an Endorsing Partner of Resilient Cities 2013. Find out more about our partnership with ICLEI and our session at this year's congress.

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