Yusra Mohammed,14, dressed as a doctor, takes part in an Oxfam promotion campaign to promote Sanergy Fresh Life toilets in the Mukuru informal settlement, in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 28, 2014. Photo Credit: Sam Tarling

Finding durable solutions to Urban Vulnerability issues in Kenya

As humanitarian and disaster management actors in Kenya prepared to reduce the humanitarian impact of an impending El Nino - a change in the atmosphere and ocean of the tropical Pacific region that produces heavy rains leading to floods, – in September 2009, it became clear that attention was focused mostly in the rural areas with minimal attention to potential impact in urban informal settlements.

In October 2009 alone, two weeks of heavy rains unleashed significant emergencies in urban areas in Kenya. Cholera killed 11 people in Nairobi‘s Mukuru kwa Njenga slums alone in the month of October. Some 949 people — most of them pregnant women and children under five years — have been treated for cholera and other water-borne diseases like diarrhea, vomiting and dysentery in Kenya‘s slums.

Chronic poverty in urban informal settlements (slums) in Kenya is emerging as a critical area of humanitarian need in the country. A 2009 launch by Oxfam GB noted that `between a third and half of the country‘s urban population live in poverty. For example in the capital Nairobi over 200 informal settlements have been counted. While the 200 informal settlements cover only 5 per cent of the total residential land area of the city, they are inhabited by at least 60 per cent of the city‘s population. The number of urban population living in slums is expected to double in the next 15 years, as migration is exacerbated by environmental adversity.

Calling for an urgent need for co-ordinated action to reduce urban poverty, Oxfam GB noted further that the `increasingly severe inequalities in cities have negative implications for human security, stability and economic development. Urban poverty and inequality can have catastrophic social consequences when combined with poor governance and ethnic resentment, as the violence in urban informal settlements following the 2007 presidential election made all too clear.‘

As noted by Mr. Alioune Badiane; Director Regional Office for Africa and the Arab States, the urban especially slum dwellers in Kenya are forced to eke out a living under conditions that threaten their safety, health, education prospects, and their hopes for the future. `The 2007 post-election violence in Kenya shows that traditional humanitarian assistance alone is not sufficient in overcoming the challenges of urban vulnerability and urban actors need to work closer together in order to better meet the immense needs.‘ But the growing recognition of the humanitarian implication of urbanisation has not spurred adequate response mechanisms and systems for Urban Vulnerability issues. The challenge for humanitarian actors today is how to coordinate and facilitate preparedness for informal settlements. `Many of these settlements are considered illegal, and are therefore not included in disaster preparedness planning. The geographic and social complexity of slums also presents a challenge to mapping the effects of disasters - and identifying the populations at greatest risk - `a task that many city governments in developing countries have neither the capacity nor funding to initiate.‘

According to the IASC (spell out), the humanitarian sector as a whole has been slow to respond to the consequences of the acceleration of urbanisation. One of the overall challenges in responding to urban humanitarian crises is that the approach in urban areas evidently must be different from that used in rural areas. Some critical issues in humanitarian response include identifying disasters and crisis specific to urban areas, and assessing how urban disasters and crises impact on women, men, vulnerable groups, etc.

The humanitarian implications of urbanisation which leads to the presence of informal settlements and the marginalization that comes with it present new opportunities for integration of the development and humanitarian agendas. According to Jeanine Cooper Head of Office for OCHA Kenya these challenges can no longer be viewed in isolation. `Humanitarian and development actors need to focus on solutions that do not only address one challenge and then deliberately or unintentionally exacerbate the negative effects of another. Humanitarian assistance must be planned with a view to an equally rapid transition to rehabilitation and reconstruction and be part of the continuum concept which aims at resuming development at the earliest opportunity.‘ Cooper notes.

`The above can only be achieved through a comprehensive approach aimed at reinforcing the capacity of each actor to understand the urban complexity and their ability to set up a coordinated synergy applicable to all the single phases of disaster management, ranging from prevention and preparedness up to the resumption of the development march after recovering. At the same time, it should be recognised that the continuum concept may require different approaches in different situations.‘