Realising resilience: adaptation in fragile urban environments
Financing adaptation and resilience wa a big theme for COP26 in Glasgow. Regardless of any future warming trajectory, some measure of adaptation will be necessary. For developing and vulnerable nations, financing this is the lynchpin of developed world commitment to tackling climate change. The US has recently followed through with a significant pledge to double its financial aid. There will undoubtedly be analysis of how far such COP pledges represent new money and how adequate such funding pledges are. A further critical question is how this finance is to be spent to ensure that the most vulnerable benefit.
The image above, taken by Muhammad Toheed, shows households close to a rainwater-carrying drain, Gujjar Nullah, in Karachi.
Among the world’s most vulnerable contexts to climate change are low-income urban areas, often informally settled. In particular, ‘fragile’ urban areas have been so termed to describe contexts where states are unwilling or unable to provide basic infrastructure and services. This includes those necessary to reduce risks and build capacities to adapt. While fragility does not always connote violence, in such areas people also live with the direct effects of many forms of non-conflict violence (such as crime, evictions and gender-based violence).
Fragility is rising across cities, while non-conflict violence is increasingly urbanised. Yet very little research has explored through grounded, empirical enquiry how the impacts of climate change and of urban violence inter-relate as risks for people, and how to deliver adaptation in these contexts.
Our GCRF-funded research project – ’Addressing the 24 hour cycle of urban risk’ – has been investigating how non-conflict violence risks and climate change risks overlap and compound vulnerability. We have been working in low-income communities in Nairobi (Kenya), Karachi (Pakistan) and Colombo (Sri Lanka) that are sited in vulnerable ecological zones (such as along riverbanks and drainage canals) affected by risks of flooding, and where residents experience multiple forms of violence in the context of little support from government or outside agencies.
Although the scale of vulnerabilities differs across our sites, the interaction effects between governance, violence and climate-related risks have emerged from both our qualitative and quantitative survey-based work. These interactions are particularly marked for women. In Colombo, researchers found women reported increases in gender-based violence triggered or exacerbated by flood events. Tensions within and between families and community members heightened when inadequate flood relief was distributed or family members needed to relocate to stay with relatives in highly dense housing conditions. The constant uncertainty and often violence of state evictions undertaken in the name of risk management and urban regeneration intersected with the direct impacts of flood events.
In Karachi, this led to violence ‘cascades’. Women reported disproportionate impacts from losing housing structures containing bathrooms in state demolition drives. The insecurity from living in partial housing structures led families to send away daughters to safer locations and to women taking on vulnerable roles as night-time guards. Flooding then exacerbated household losses and stress, increasing gender-based violence. One woman talked of experiencing abuse after her husband lost a limb in a flood event.
We are still unpacking what it means for people to experience risks across different timescales (as encapsulated by our project title ’24 hour risk’, to indicate female vulnerability to continuous forms of violence in both public and private space) and how the processes that give rise to the complex sets of risks people experience accrue within households, communities, cities and beyond. The research already indicates that inter-sectional social identities are important to the ways in which violence and climate risk interact. Christian and Muslim women in one Karachi community report significant differences in the types of violence experienced in relation to climate risk, for example.
Our data also indicates that the type of climate impact influences the forms of violence that may manifest. Floods may force women to take themselves and their families outside the home, where heat stress may force men to be at home (exacerbating potential for gender-based violence) and women to spend longer looking for water resources. This kind of nuanced data will be needed to embed adaptation safely and effectively in local contexts. It needs to be underpinned by more research that not only infers that climate change leads to increases in conflict, but also asks how violence affects peoples’ ability to adapt, and about the multiple and contingent pathways through which this can occur, including through ‘adaptive’ interventions themselves.
"We flag the need for ‘do no harm’ principles for adaptation investments to ensure violence is not triggered, exacerbated or cascaded"
What does our data indicate for COP26, and for debates about adaptation finance and resilience support? First, we flag the need for ‘do no harm’ principles for adaptation investments to ensure violence is not triggered, exacerbated or cascaded. Second, our research draws attention to the pro-active role of community networks and organisations in otherwise fragile areas, and the need to support their activities. Third, we point up the potential to invest in multi-purpose infrastructures to tackle the need for sustainable and safe cities.
Our research partner in Kenya, Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), exemplifies this through their investments in the participatory building of public space for women and girls, but also simple initiatives such as using red flags for warning. This was an initial intervention to assist with flood warning but now also adapted by communities to indicate incidents of insecurity.
Finally, and relatedly, we echo long-standing calls to integrate adaptation investment at the local level with development-oriented investments that tackle the wider sets of inequalities and insecurities that create vulnerability in fragile urban contexts, such as in water and sanitation and housing infrastructures.
Dr Arabella Fraser
Dr Arabella Fraser is a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Social Sciences.