The New Humanitarian welcomes new CEO Ebele Okobi.

Find out more.
  1. Home
  2. Southern Africa
  3. South Africa

Climate adaptation advice for cities in global South

Children play outside their home Boa Vista informal settlement, Luanda, Angola, August 2007. In Luanda, home to some of the world's worst slums, nearly every neighborhood outside the city center is ringed by mountains of garbage, often soaked by rivulets Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
Cities in developing countries with quality health, housing and water drainage systems, can more easily adapt to a changing climate, says the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

David Satterthwaite, a leading expert on human settlements and one of the two coordinating lead authors of the urban chapter in the IPCC report, told IRIN the report’s message for urban centres in developing countries is: “Good development provides the basis for climate change adaptation both in the sense of resilient infrastructure (piped water, drains, all-weather roads) and better quality houses… Providing these, also develops the institutional and financial base for climate change adaptation.”

Urban centres in developing countries often have to make difficult decisions on how much expenditure to allocate to development versus climate change adaptation, but the report’s authors say a successful balance can be achieved with clear policy direction, committed and informed staff, knowledge, and of course money.

Many cities in developing countries “are caught in a `perfect storm’ of population growth, escalating adaptation needs and substantial development deficits created by a shortage of human and financial resources, increasing levels of informality, poor governance, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, poverty and growing inequality,” writes Debra Roberts, the environmental planning head of the South African city of Durban and one of the lead authors of the urban chapter in the IPCC report.

"Good development provides the basis for climate change adaptation"
“UN projections suggest that almost all the increase in the world’s population up to 2050 will be in urban centres in what are currently low- and middle-income nations,” says the report

Studies by the UN and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies show that a high proportion of the world’s population most affected by extreme weather events is concentrated in urban centres and many of these “lack both local governments with the capacity to reduce disaster risk, and much of the necessary infrastructure,” says the report.

“Draw on the good experience in many cities in assessing disaster risk and investing in measures to reduce it. As you develop these, add a little extra to increase safety margins in areas where risks are likely to increase as a result of climate change,” Satterthwaite advises city planners.

The UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED - where Satterthwaite is a senior fellow) produced case studies on three cities facing significant development problems and at the same time trying to make their residents more resilient to extreme natural events.

Rosario, Argentina

Rosario is perhaps one of the best examples of how delivering development can help a population become more resilient.

Residents were vulnerable to flooding associated with intense rainfall and overflow from local streams linked to the Parana river. A dam over one of the streams was built to reduce flooding, and areas adjacent to the streams and the river are being developed into green spaces. Drainage channels are being built on all streets, and the emergency response system has been improved.

With more than 30 percent of its population unemployed in early 2000, Rosario had significant housing and health problems.

In 2001, the city initiated a programme to create employment opportunities, regularize land tenure, and improve housing, as well as access to water, electricity and gas, remove big waste dump sites and install street lights. When the US$71 million project ended in 2012, 98 percent of residents reported (in an evaluation in 2011) that they had water, sanitation and electricity; and 90 percent of families said there was a reduced risk of flooding.

More than 25 percent of the city’s budget is devoted to health, focusing on prevention, with a network of community health centres - open not only to residents, but migrants and foreigners.

Decentralization has seen the city split into several administrative units, which encourages community participation and engagement.

“Every intervention is characterized by clear rules and obligations for all parties involved,” writes IIED researcher Jorgelina Hardoy, partnering with freelance researcher, Regina Ruete. For example, every agreement that is signed with a big private landowner or real estate developer includes an amount of land for the development of public space, and land that the city government can use to develop social housing.

Manizales, Colombia

Manizales, located on steep slopes in a tropical rainforest area, is vulnerable to flooding, earthquakes, volcanic activity and also armed conflict. Colombia, with the highest risk to natural disasters in Latin America, levies a 1.2 percent tax on urban and rural properties, and by law municipalities have to invest that money in environmental protection.

“DRR [disaster risk reduction] is taken seriously [in Colombia] - legislation makes politicians personally liable for ensuring that their constituents are safe from disasters,” write Hardoy and Luz Stella Velásquez Barrero, a researcher with the Institute of Environmental Studies in Manizales.

A new 2012 disaster risk management law requires that DRR be integrated with land use and environmental planning as well as interventions related to housing, infrastructure, mobility, services, industry, agriculture, etc.

Manizales is way ahead of other urban centres in applying the law, say Hardoy and Barrero. It has relocated homes in high risk areas prone to flooding and landslides, and provided property-owners with the option of buying into a collective insurance scheme, subsidizing such insurance for low income groups.

Manizales also provides tax incentives to property-owners who reduce their vulnerability to risks. Risk reduction is taught in schools. Working with local academic institutions, the city has developed a risk management index, which helps to assess its performance.

Durban, South Africa

Incorporating DRR and adaptation in all sectors as in Manizales, was not the approach of Durban, a coastal city on the Indian Ocean with acute housing needs.

Even though Durban Municipality managed to deliver 90,000 houses over the past decade, there is still a backlog of over 400,000 units. “This could take up to 28 years to address based on current funding/service delivery levels,” say Roberts and her colleague Sean O’ Donoghue from Durban Municipality.

Many people live in slums prone to flooding. Climate projections for Durban say there is likely to be an increase - from 30 percent to a potential doubling - of rainfall variability between the middle and the end of the century. “Sea level rise along the municipality’s coastline is already 2.7cm per decade and may accelerate in the future,” write Roberts and O’ Donoghue.

A few years ago, the city began experimenting with a cross-sectoral approach, hoping its disaster management unit would work with all sectors to develop early warning systems, identify vulnerable areas and communities, and draw up strategies to reduce risk and climate-proof infrastructure. About two years ago it shifted the focus to specific sectors - "ones that were aligned with existing business plans, development objectives and available funding and skills," said Roberts. The city adopted two pilot sectors - water and health.

Roberts said the water sector intervention (protecting and conserving water sources), has made some progress. The city has partnered with the private sector to protect a wetland in an industrial park, and has set up a regional partnership with neighbouring areas to revive wetlands along the Umgeni river to prevent flooding. Finance was sourced from overseas.

Strong partnerships with local technical and academic institutions are vital to build knowledge and a database for vulnerable areas, she noted. Durban was also selected by the Rockefeller Foundation as a pioneer for its Resilient Cities programme – a US$100 million initiative to encourage urban resilience around the world.

Another IPCC author, Katharine Vincent, says the Durban case shows that urban centres do not need to choose between either development or adaptation.

“Durban’s green corridors and ecosystem-based adaptation… has improved the integrity of the natural environment, brought green into the city, created opportunities for tourism, and has positive impacts on air quality at the moment, whilst also improving resilience in the face of climate change. Equipping low-cost housing with energy-efficient solar water heaters improves the lives of residents now, without the accompanying increase in carbon emissions. So I don’t think it’s an either/or...

"I think Durban is still seen as good practice example globally, with many developing country cities looking to it to inform their own approaches.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.