Mitigating climate change in Ugandan cities: Don’t Ignore the Urban Poor

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The following article appeared as an OpEd in the Daily Monitor on Monday 3rd of October

The urban poor in developing countries will be hardest hit by the impacts of climate change says a new report on cities and climate change by UN-Habitat. This is not because the urban poor are those most responsible for high greenhouse emissions; in fact, quite the opposite is the case. The report shows there is an inverse relationship between those most responsible for greenhouse emissions and those who suffer most from its impacts.

In Uganda, the lack of basic services and infrastructure in the country’s slums compounds these impacts. Severe flooding and landslides caused by heavy rains have long plagued the urban poor whose affordability constraints force them to settle on vulnerable land. In the coming years, heavy precipitation events are very likely to occur more frequently and with greater severity according to the report.

Residents of Uganda’s slums are not strangers to this phenomenon, which disrupts and destroys business, makes roads impassable, decimates homes, overwhelms sanitation systems and spurs outbreaks of cholera, malaria, and dysentery, and diarrhea. During heavy downpours many of Kampala’s slums look as though they have been hit by a tsunami. Roads turn into raging rivers and cars, people, loose structures and property are washed away. In many, pit latrines are swept away by flash floods, spreading disease throughout the settlements. Throughout the country’s slums, homes and businesses are severely damaged during rainy periods, necessitating partial rebuilding multiple times per year. The asset stripping this represents for the urban poor is crippling.

This World Habitat Day, Ugandans should not ignore the vital role of the urban poor who constitute 60 per cent of the nation’s urban population. When the urban poor are organized and sensitized about climate change they can play a central role in mitigating its impact upon their environment.

Indeed, approximately 38,000 Ugandan slum dwellers in six urban centers – Kampala, Arua, Jinja, Mbale, Mbarara, and Kabale – are doing just that through small but scalable slum upgrading activities. These responsible citizens are members of a growing social movement known as the Uganda Slum Dwellers Federation – a network of 343 community groups that save daily, work in partnership with local authorities, and mobilize their members to improve living conditions in slums. Among the committees found in each community group is a Health and Hygiene Committee. Throughout the country these Federation committees are mobilizing members – and even the wider community – to dispose of waste thoughtfully and work with local authorities on municipal-wide initiatives. The impact of community led initiatives such as Keep Mbale Clean, for instance, make a visible difference in some of Uganda’s largest slums, and greatly mitigate the risk of flooding by clearing drains and encouraging residents to keep them litter free.

Environmental conservation is also enhanced when groups such as the Federation train communities in solid waste management skills. Among the best practices instituted by the Federation are community projects that make briquettes from organic waste, that recycle plastic waste, and reuse discarded materials to make crafts.

In Jinja, the Federation is using innovative soil compressed interlocking brick technology to construct quality, weather resistant houses for members. The technology being employed eliminates the need for massive quantities of scarce timber for brick firing. It is the Federation members themselves who do the construction, acquiring marketable skills in eco-friendly building technology.

In addition, the Federation collects invaluable information during citywide enumerations (community-run censuses) about waste management practices and sanitation services in each of its cities of operation. Once processed, the Federation works with local authorities to see that this data informs interventions in their settlements. Such information means the Federation can assist local authorities to generate targeted and efficient strategies for climate change mitigation that can be jointly implemented with local communities.

Sustainable and scalable mitigation strategies are possible in Uganda if the urban majority is organized and respected as a legitimate partner in this most urgent endeavor.

Skye Dobson is a Research and Documentation Office for Shack/Slum Dwellers International. skye@sdinet.org