Building climate change resilience in African cities: Why the UN’s New Urban Agenda is needed now

Building climate change resilience in African cities: Why the UN’s New Urban Agenda is needed now
  • PublishedApril 20, 2022

As population density skyrockets, megacities in Africa are likely to suffer the most from climate change. The UN’s New Urban Agenda holds the key for unlocking climate resilient cities in Africa and around the world, says Oumar Sylla, Director of UN-Habitat’s regional office for Africa.

Ministers responsible for housing and urban development from across Africa recently met in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss how best to respond to urbanisation on the continent.

In light of the upcoming High-Level Meeting at the UN on 28 April on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, national expert representatives of the Special African Ministerial Session on Sustainable Urbanisation and Housing made the case for working together to implement the framework in their respective countries.

The two-day African ministerial consultations towards the High-Level meeting were organised by UN-Habitat, UNECA, and the African Union with the support from the government of Kenya.

The New Urban Agenda was adopted at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito, Ecuador, on 20 October 2016. It highlights linkages between sustainable urbanisation and job creation, livelihood opportunities and improved quality of life, and insists on the incorporation of all of these sectors in every urban development or policy and strategy.

As part of this, ministers must work with their respective governments to double down on tackling climate change in order to fully implement the New Urban Agenda.

After all, Africa sits in the crossfire of one of the greatest challenges to face our global community. Accounting for only 3% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, the continent is one of the most vulnerable to climate change and variability, further aggravated by sub-par infrastructure and disaster response services. The continent’s increasingly urbanised cities will therefore be on the frontline of climate change.

Building the resilience of urban areas in Africa

During the meeting, experts stressed the connection between climate change, housing, physical planning and the need for innovative finance systems to build resilience of urban centres in Africa – especially after the Covid-19 pandemic which has deepened inequalities in urban areas. Experts during the meeting stressed the connection between climate change in Africa, housing, physical planning and the need for innovative financing systems to build resilient urban centres, especially in the post-Covid era with increased inequalities.

Fortunately, international agencies like UN-Habitat are mobilising their partners in national and local governments, and offering their operational expertise, to push back against these daunting crises.

As the Director of UN-Habitat’s regional office for Africa, I want to encourage our African partners, and those from around the world, to reaffirm their commitment to the New Urban Agenda at the High-Level Meeting in New York, while also cooperating on innovative solutions to creating climate resilient cities.

The agreed conclusions among the African ministers of housing and urban development after this meeting is to renew commitments to the transformative conception of cities as potential engines of economic and social development in Africa pursuing the SDGs and the Agenda 2063. This an important building block towards Africities 9 and WUF 11 in consolidating the momentum for well-planned and managed cities in Africa.

Mitigating the impact of climate change

However, the challenge at hand must not be underestimated. African cities are already among the fastest-growing worldwide and simultaneously the most susceptible to climate threats. 

The urban population in Africa is projected to triple by 2050, increasing by 800m. Urban regions consume the most resources globally and contribute the greatest concentration of greenhouse-gas emissions, with enormous disparity among income levels.

As population density skyrockets, megacities in sub-Saharan Africa are likely to suffer the most from climate change. Research from the risk consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft indicates that cities like Kampala (Uganda), Lagos (Nigeria), Luanda (Angola), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) will be the worst affected.

In Ethiopia, Addis Ababa is susceptible to drought and water shortages, while in Tanzania, Dar es Salaam is a low-lying coastal city that often experiences flooding, erosion, and storm surges. African small- and medium-sized cities, too, have limited adaptive capacity to deal with future climate impacts and the current range of extreme weather events. Sustainable development that is mindful of the risks of climate change is critical in an era of uncertainty – as outlined by the New Urban Agenda.

Of course, climate change also has the ability to create and exacerbate existing conflicts, particularly in areas such as the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Therefore, in order to support peace and security, ministers agreed to establish an urban recovery framework for post-conflict and disaster situations.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed inequalities in cities everywhere. Pre-existing urban challenges have come to the fore, such as spatial sustainability, whilst new vulnerabilities like insufficient digital infrastructure have been revealed.

Moving forward, the international focus must be on transforming African cities and settlements to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change by implementing the New Urban Agenda.

If well managed, urbanisation offers emerging economies infrastructure and economic development opportunities. If poorly managed, it can widen the divide between rich and poor and trigger adverse environmental as well as economic, security, and social consequences.

But there is hope. For more than 10 years, UN-Habitat has supported African cities to build their climate resilience, focusing on those cities vulnerable to transboundary extreme climate events.

The New Urban Agenda is key

By continuing to implement the New Urban Agenda – which offers guidance on implementing best-in-class urban management – UN-Habitat aims to accelerate the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

Member states will gather in the United States this spring for the High-Level Meeting of the General Assembly to review progress on implementing the New Urban Agenda six years after its adoption at the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador.

UN-Habitat’s current Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif is a committed public servant and has clearly used her extensive knowledge and experience in city planning to develop UN-Habitat’s reputation both within and beyond the UN to generate effective change.

Under Mohd Sharif’s leadership, UN-Habitat is working to support urbanisation efforts surrounding housing, climate adaptation, response, and reconstruction within cities and localising the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). 

She and I both believe that the New Urban Agenda holds the key for unlocking climate resilient cities in Africa and around the world. Its vision is to provide a better quality of life for all in an urbanising world, which cannot come soon enough in the face of environmental degradation.  

Oumar Sylla is Director, Regional Office for Africa, UN-Habitat

Written By
New African

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