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ActionAid International

Unjust Waters:
Climate change, flooding and the protection of poor urban communities - experiences from six African cities


ActionAid International

November 2006

SARPN acknowledges ActionAid International as a source of this document: www.actionaid.org.uk
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Summary of the key findings and urgent call for action

"Our houses are built in low areas. We have no place to take shelter when the flood starts. The house owners do not help us to drain out water from our houses. People use buckets to remove water themselves. Though water has just gone, the real disaster has just begun. That is diseases."
Residents of Mafalala in Maputo, Mozambique

The right to adequate housing and ‘continuous improvement of living conditions’ was recognised more than three decades ago by the governments that ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Six years ago, at the UN Millennium Summit, world leaders set a specific target for realising that right, by pledging to achieve ‘a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers’ by 2020. However, in Africa – the world’s fastest urbanising region – climate change is already threatening that goal, putting the continent’s already strained urban cities under additional stress.

‘Environmental refugees’ from climate-related droughts and floods are already swelling the tide of rural-tourban migration across Africa, and the trend is expected to intensify as drought increases its grip over large swathes of the continent. By 2030, the majority of Africa’s population will live in urban areas. Unfortunately, however, global warming is also bringing chronic flooding to the cities, which can be just as disastrous for poor urbanites as droughts are for farmers. Urban floods spread disease, interrupt schooling and destroy houses, assets and income.

In participatory vulnerability analysis (PVA) with slum dwellers in six African cities, one of the major problems ActionAid uncovered is that there are few, if any, collective mechanisms either for reducing flood risks or for managing floods once they do happen. Instead, poor people are left to fend for themselves with whatever individual coping strategies they can muster. As one resident of Mabatini in Nairobi pointed out, this represents an enormous lost opportunity: “We are not included in decision-making processes…. If we were, we could form residents’ associations to improve our own welfare and response to emergencies. We can partner with City Corporation of Nairobi to plant trees along the riverbank, dig canals, trenches and drainage next to our houses.”

Climate change impacts severely upon women and children through urban flooding. Some families contacted by ActionAid reported seeing children drown in floods. Many more children were directly affected by flood-caused ill health and interruptions to their education. It poses extra burdens on women. It increases the need for rights to human security in conflicts and emergencies to be made to include assistance during disasters such as urban flooding. It emphasises the need for good, just and democratic governance to allow people to participate in the mitigation of flooding and to ensure the delivery of government services to all the people, whatever their security of tenure.

Disaster reduction is now a priority for African governments and is incorporated in many planning documents, but the achievement of actions that will help the urban poor is far from being realised. The key messages are:

  • Flooding greatly aggravates poverty. The worsening of the flood situation as a consequence of climate change thus increases poverty.


  • The case for special assistance to help poor people adapt to climate change is clear.


  • Special assistance is needed to: tackle the four types of flooding as listed on page eight; help local communities manage their own environments to reduce flood impacts; help local government manage flooding on local totally urban streams; help national and international river basin agencies manage flooding on major rivers; and help coastal towns and cities deal with encroachment on the wetlands that should be places for the natural storage of flood waters.


  • Limited access to critical services such as food, income, health, water, education during flood time is the key factor reducing poor people’s ability to adapt to a worsening flood situation.


  • Flooding has to be seen as one of the factors preventing poor people improving their quality of life.


  • Both climate change and local causes of flooding need to be tackled.


  • To ignore the role climate change plays in urban poverty is to deny disadvantaged urban people one way of getting a better life.
The urgent tasks ahead

The solutions to the severe flooding of poor urban communities in Africa are relatively simple. Many people understand what needs to be done. Communities can do much for themselves. However, the tasks are best tackled through partnerships with national and international support. All parties concerned need to collaborate in:

  • Making sure the growing human challenge of urban flooding is addressed in all national and international development policies, planning and actions by governments, UN systems, IFIs and NGOs.


  • Investing in proper and safe infrastructure, such as drainage, as locally appropriate.


  • Ensuring that poor people participate in all decision-making processes equally with experts in flood reduction policies.


  • Taking all possible measures to ensure that poor people’s rights to adequate and disaster-safe housing are realised and their tenure is secured.


  • Making sure that critical services such as health, water and sanitation are disaster prepared, which means they are able to provide adequate services during floods.


  • Implementing the Hyogo Framework of Action, agreed at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in 2005, at all levels of urban planning and service delivery.




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