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Deflating Africa’s urban disaster risk bubble

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Emmanuel Osuteye reports from Africa 100 years from now, where a better understanding of everyday risks has spared the continent the worst impacts of its rapid urbanisation.

Deflating Africa’s urban disaster risk bubble

Panoramic view of north-western Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photographed in 2018.

Credit: E. Osuteye

Several ‘smaller’ cities have become economic mega powers, blurring boundaries and leaving an obscured discontinued sense of the term ‘peri-urban’.

To coincide with our Bartlett 100 exhibition, The Next 100 Years, we’re running a series of seven pieces by researchers at The Bartlett that offer speculative responses to the statement: ‘The built environment in 2119’. Writers have been invited to interpret it in whichever way they like, with the aim being to explore questions at the heart of how we shape the world we live in over the next century.

​06: Deflating Africa’s urban disaster risk bubble

By Emmanuel Osuteye, Research Fellow at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit

In 2119, Africa’s urban population boom has followed a predicted pattern represented by a steep exponential curve. Lagos still tops the league with its population of more than 80 million people. Other megacities have also maintained their economic viability and attraction, and follow this trend closely. The likes of Kinshasa, Cairo, Luanda, Nairobi, Abidjan, Khartoum, Bamako, Johannesburg and Ouagadougou are noteworthy. These were the 10 fastest growing urban centres between 2010 and 2030, and alongside birth rates, these cities had an astonishing average growth of 34 people moving in per hour!

Several ‘smaller’ cities, formerly secondary and peripheral to major urban centres, have become economic mega powers and have all passed the one-million inhabitants threshold (this is twice as many as in Latin America), blurring boundaries and leaving an obscured discontinued sense of the term ‘peri-urban’.

Africa’s rapid urban expansion has occurred during a period of unprecedented climatic and environmental stress, with a significant strain on natural resources. In the past century, the continent has, overall, suffered disproportionately from climate change, with a trail of losses from large-scale disasters such as cyclones, hurricanes, floods and mudslides.

Nonetheless, urban centres in Africa have made the most progress in adapting successfully to climate change. Noteworthy is the successful redesign and functioning of institutions at local scale in supporting Disaster Risk Management or DRM, and preparedness. African cities have also benefited the most from technology transfer (for infrastructure design and delivery); accelerated smartphone penetration, internet connectivity and direct funding support have had a notable impact on the uptake and integration of model-based decision-making and improved early-warning systems now provide lead times of several weeks before a disaster event occurs. And, although there are still some gaps in the provision of resilient infrastructure, the application of such information has reduced the vulnerability of urban centres to surprise shocks, leading to a corresponding reduction in the number of mortalities arising from intensive or large-scale disaster risk.

Deflating Africa’s urban disaster risk bubble

Flooded central market, Karonga, Malawi. Photographed in 2017.

Credit: D. Brown

By 2119, the narrative on urban informality in Africa has shifted significantly from being construed not as a problem, but rather an asset and sign of resilience and agility.

Informality in a ‘new’ urban agenda for disaster risk

With rapid urbanisation, Africa’s urban centres remain largely informal, and informal settlements have historically carried a disproportionate burden of the losses from disaster risk as a consequence of recognisable development deficits and a lack of risk-reducing infrastructure and services. However, by 2119, the narrative on urban informality in Africa has shifted significantly from being construed not as a problem, but rather an asset and sign of resilience and agility. The ‘virtues’ and ‘potentials’ of informality; responsiveness, creativity, self-organisation and sufficiency, community cohesion and shared identity have been given prominence through persistent longitudinal studies and a broad action research agenda spanning several decades.

Despite the persistence of informality, the ‘new’ urban agenda in Africa from this dedicated research on informality has led to an evidence-based approach: city and municipal authorities, planners and decision-makers now work closely with communities and residents to address the challenges of access, quality, fairness and efficiency of infrastructure and services provision, ultimately reducing the apparent and perceived vices of informal settlements. The outputs of seminal multi-country, multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary projects and capacity-building programmes, such as the Urban Africa Risk Knowledge, Knowledge in Action for Urban Equality, and Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters, have opened up an applied research and policy agenda for risk management in urban Africa. This has catalysed the formation of a community of researchers and practitioners across the continent, who now drive that agenda.

Deflating the precarious disaster-risk bubble

A direct consequence of the progress made in shifting the narrative on informality in African urban centres is the broadened framing of risks; the production and reproduction of risk at varying scales, frequency and patterns is now acknowledged, as is the need for them to be adequately recognised, captured, understood and addressed. This framing not only allowed for a useful distinction between scales of disaster risk: ‘intensive risks’ (larger, less frequent disaster events such as tropical storms and earthquakes), ‘extensive risks’ (including small disasters such as localised floods and fire outbreaks) and systemic ‘everyday risks’.

The idea of everyday risks speaks of characteristic and high-frequency conditions that people and communities are continually exposed to. These conditions may lead to losses not necessarily related to mortality or the destruction of property, but nevertheless become normalised phenomena. These include: protracted periods of illnesses from endemic infectious and parasitic diseases (not epidemics), motor accidents, isolated cases of domestic fires, persistent air pollution and poor waste management, and frequent flash flooding. The framing of risk as a spectrum also allowed for better a conceptualisation of impact beyond the consideration of discrete events of disasters to include the cumulative effect of risk exposure over time.

Deflating Africa’s urban disaster risk bubble

The shoreline of the Cockle Bay informal settlement, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photographed in 2017.

Credit: E. Osuteye

The idea of ‘everyday risks’ speaks of characteristic and high-frequency conditions that people and communities are continually exposed to.

Beyond catastrophic large-scale events, the long-term impacts of everyday events are considerable and in some cases have an even higher aggregated impact on human health and wellbeing. In the 21st century, it was the small-scale disasters and everyday risks that caused much of the premature death, injury and impoverishment in urban Africa – not always large-scale events that made the headlines. This conclusion highlights the lived experiences of the majority of residents of urban informal settlements and the urban poor.

Conclusion: radical shifts made the difference

Without dismissing the relative strides made to reduce vulnerability to large scale events, it is the change in priorities by urban managers and decision-makers, and the resulting relative success of dealing with extensive and everyday risk, that has diffused the potentially explosive impacts of disaster risk in the face of rapid urbanisation in Africa.

In conclusion, four radical factors formed the basis for transformative action across several decades in the 21st century. These do not represent a comprehensive list, but are indicative of the earliest findings from the research-driven agenda for addressing urban risk in Africa:

Radical risk assessment

Processes and methods designed to create a better understanding of the nature, scale and full spectrum of urban risk, and which lead to a greater understanding of its distribution and influence on people. The most significant result of this is the accurate identification of groups or residents or areas in urban centres most vulnerable to disaster risk.

Radical data systemisation

This has addressed the previously significant data gaps, by improving the availability, access and utility of detailed, systematic, and localised data on urban risks and impacts. Modern data processing and analytical tools have allowed harmonisation and archiving of datasets (including real-time updates), streamlined risk communication channels across scales, and has been fundamental in enabling interventions by planners, policy-makers and development practitioners.

Radical collaborative local action

This has been most visible in the sustained campaign and support for local urban action on extensive risks. This has involved a range of actors – from local governments, academics and researchers, to civil society and community-based organisations – collectively working to co-produce innovative responses and context-specific improvements for disaster preparedness. In the process, this collaboration has built relationships, technical and practical knowledge, raised capacity and provided sustainable long-term support.

Radical policy influence

One of the biggest hurdles overcome was a shift from away from the dominance of intensive risks in most disaster-risk policy frameworks, to more responsive instruments that account for the spectrum of urban risks, recognising the needs, capacities and potentials of informal settlements.


This opinion piece is a part-factual, part-imaginative reflection that draws on the author’s current research interests and collaborative projects, available data and an agenda for continued research and action on extensive (small-scale and everyday) disaster risks to create resilient informal urban settlements in Africa.

The Development Planning Unit is a world-leading research and postgraduate teaching unit that helps to build the capacity of national governments, local authorities, NGOs, aid agencies and businesses working towards socially-just and sustainable development in the Global South. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more: https://ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/development

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