Published on Sustainable Cities

Building Resilience for the Urban Poor - Let’s Get Moving

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ImageIn the many slums I have visited in Latin America, Asia and Africa, I am always struck by the resourcefulness and resilience of residents. Slum dwellers face many hardships in their daily life – low incomes, overcrowded living conditions in high risk areas such as flood zones or steep hillsides, and limited access to clean water, sanitation, transport or solid waste services.

These challenges are only made worse by the impacts of climate change and natural hazards. Heavy rains can quickly turn into a disastrous flood as a result of insufficient or ineffective drainage.  Such flooding can destroy the limited assets of poor households, halt economic activity, contaminate water supply, lead to disease and displace residents.   With the increase in weather extremes, it is anticipated that such events will happen with recurring frequency.

While poor urban residents are adapting in creative ways, it’s not enough. At the household and community level, slum dwellers are improving their resilience by building stronger foundations, digging trenches, clearing drainage and ditches, and planting trees. Yet, much of what is needed to reduce risk in low-income urban communities depends on the availability of infrastructure that residents cannot provide themselves.  Storm and surface drainage, road and path networks, links to water networks, and health care services require specialized skills and substantial resources that communities may not have.

ImageCity governments have a leading role to role to play in addressing risk at the local level by providing citizens with public infrastructure, delivery of basic services, and mainstreaming adaptation and risk reduction into urban planning and management practices. All are critical to improving the resilience of the urban poor. Yet, many cities face constraints, rooted in the rapid pace of urbanization, ineffective policies, resource constraints, lack of political will and weak capacity.  

These challenges are not new – they are old wine in new bottles.  But climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction offer a new lens, new incentives, and potentially new resources to approach these long-standing urban development challenges. Reducing risk for the poorest will save lives, improve living conditions, enhance productivity, and ultimately contribute to economic growth in cities.

To address these challenges, the development community needs to step up its work with cities to build capacity and institutions to deliver the infrastructure and services that are needed, particularly for those at highest risk. With the current slum population of one billion increasing at a rate of 25 million people per year, let’s get moving and show that we can be as resourceful as the urban poor in helping cities to build resilience for their most vulnerable residents.

Editor’s Note: To find out more about how climate change and disasters impact the urban poor, and what cities can do to build resilience, check out the World Bank’s latest publication Climate Change, Disaster Risk and the Urban Poor, edited by Judy Baker.



Judy Baker

Lead Economist, Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience & Land Global Practice

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