A COMMENTARY: Resilience of livelihoods in urban areas

Mbau Father-Daughter Doctor Duo
Published in
9 min readJun 16, 2021

For the full magazine article, please see the AAK BuildPress Magazine Issue №3 here.

For this and other AAK BuildPress Magazine publications, visit their page here.

The following is Stella’s article as published in the AAK BuildPress Magazine (page 11–15).

All around the world

We tend to interpret climate risk and our contribution to climate change, to within an inch of our comfort. Outside of this well architected but virtual comfort, is an existential problem; climate change. Rallying the collective consciousness towards climate action is fundamental, however, this is currently rigged with lags, and solutions that are running out of time. In order to rein climate change in, there is so much to do, so little time.

Worlds apart

The global North has made headway on development through carbon activities (GHG emitting activities). We point to these activities (human activities) as the main source of carbon emissions that have led to climate change; in turn this brings us to the global carbon inequality.

Nothing quite paints the picture like the research by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment (Tim Gore, Mira Alestig, 2020). It reports that from 1990 to 2015, the contribution by the richest 10% of the world’s population (63 million people) was 50% of cumulative carbon emissions, while the poorest 50% (3.1 billion people), were responsible for (only) 7% of cumulative emissions.

The global South, despite being less developed, and being responsible for far less carbon emissions than the North, is also more vulnerable to climate change. This is not only because of limited adaptive capacity and a higher sensitivity to climate events, but also, because the most prevalent climate events (droughts, floods and increased temperatures) currently gravitate towards the tropics. It’s easy to see why anyone would refer to this as a climate ‘injustice’.

The value proposition

The argument for ‘adaptation and risk reduction’ over ‘decarbonisation’ for Africa, is based on the fact that Africa’s carbon footprint is low (at 3–5% annually), while vulnerability is the highest globally. Any action towards reducing her carbon emissions would not make a marked difference on the ‘global whole’ of emissions. It would be noble and responsible living (especially going into the future), but to reduce the vulnerability of African people would address a desperately urgent need, that’s with us here and now. With Africa warming 1.5 times faster than the rest of the world, widespread desertification will continue to trigger conflict (due to limited resources) and migration. We’ve witnessed this in our back yard. Therefore, the value proposition for Africa and her states, lies in adaptation.

Urban vulnerabilities

Urban areas occupy less than 2% of the Earth’s surface area. This is home to more than 50% of the global population. The consequent concentration of carbon activities (a result of urbanization and industrialization), points to a human induced microclimate, that not only physically removes us from nature but also, spurs the growth of our ‘disconnect’ from it. What is also noteworthy, is that the increasing density of people in cities, translates to increased vulnerability (Ford et al., 2019).

In cities, you’ll find critical infrastructure such as energy systems, water systems, health care, security, transportation among others. These are often centralized. The interconnectedness of these infrastructures means that impacts of climate change could reverberate far beyond, to places spatially removed from where disaster strikes. This inspired a recommendation in the IPCC’s 5th assessment report; that monitoring tools need to be multi-scale (Mukherjee & Hastak, 2018). Even more, in the age of globalization, the interconnectedness of cities means that disaster strikes are that much easier to scale; from local to global (recent happenings #covid, make a good case).

Worst hit

The most vulnerable urban areas are those with inadequate disaster preparedness, lack early warning systems, have poor infrastructure e.t.c., (Mukherjee & Hastak, 2018). Cities in the global South are particularly at risk due to high population density, many living in informal settlements, concentrations of solid and liquid waste, unplanned growth of cities, persistent poverty among other things (Hossain & Ur, 2018).

These, coupled with flood events, affect water quality in cities. In addition, due to high land conversion rates, in favour of built up space, there’s less infiltration for rainwater and more run-off that could turn into floods given the right conditions (and which we openly refer to as man-made floods). The latter goes to show, that to understand future climate risks to our urban areas, it’s important to understand land-use changes (Ford et al., 2019).

While the effect of a 1. 5̊ C temperature increase in Africa may be uncertain (due to inadequate monitoring systems), it is bound to put a strain on sanitation, drinking water, land tenure, and trigger underlying governance weaknesses in our cities (Pelling et al., 2018).

‘Day Zero’ in Cape Town gives a preview of a ‘strain on water’. Cape Town experienced a water crisis so bad, it was christened the first modern city in the world to completely run dry. We have not had a ‘Day Zero’ in Nairobi, but water shortage is not alien to us.

The Kenyan urban- Nairobi

In a direct sense, human activity is threatening the biodiversity that we pride ourselves in. The Nairobi National Park for example, is a tale that goes back to the 1960’s. From land that belonged to the Maasai (seen them crossing the road with their cattle and thought they were misplaced?), to an exchange of hands over a promise to safeguard its biological assets. However, the park is slowly turning lifeless. Misappropriation of land in general, has the same effect on our sensitive ecosystems as well as our indigenous communities. This, a land governance issue, is much like covid-19, a virus that exposes deep inequalities.

On the other hand, climate change is threatening urban households through increasingly prevalent drought and flood cycles. These, and the locust invasion, put a strain on food production. Our urban food systems being dependent on sources far removed from the city, means that shocks in the village, affect us. This could be in the form of increased food prices.

The poor in Nairobi, about half of its population, occupy 5% of the total urban residential land area. Literally, no room to breathe. So, climate risks for the urban poor are even greater. They have lower adaptive capacity by virtue of limited resources (lack access to assets), limited information, poor access to services, poor social networks and limited mobility.

Arresting the situation

Adaptation can be achieved through soft or hard interventions. Soft interventions being the creation of awareness for example, and hard interventions being infrastructural, such as the installation of early warning systems.

The health burden of inadequate water for sanitation and drinking requires an integrated urban water management. Our urban spaces also require robust waste management protocols, that cater for future pressures emanating from an ever-increasing population. These among other interventions, point to the need for spatial plans that promote adaptation.

Currently, our water, energy and food systems are easily susceptible to weather events. To address the issue of centralized systems that are also interconnected (the water-energy-food nexus, is a sensitive one; failure in one is likely to affect the others), calls for innovation. A take on micro-grids perhaps? It would mean, exploring opportunities in our most immediate surroundings for our sustenance. Devolution is a good foundation for this, and given some thought, is fertile ground for a circular economy.

Integrating water, energy and food micro-grids into our homes, would mean that we would have access to these resources, even if the main grids failed due to floods for example. Those at risk of suffering from disruption, would be more able to navigate the flood event because they’d still have access to clean water, power and food; therefore, reducing their vulnerability. Another example is the shortening of supply chains, by buying Kenyan. Aside from ‘building’ our own economy, it would reduce risks that supply chains are exposed to at the global scale of trade.

On the whole, having access to water, energy and food, regardless of weather events, would have a positive effect on livelihoods, because socio-economic development would continue undisrupted.

Talking about micro-grids as a solution, favours a few. It’s not that accessible to the urban poor. This means that as we look at adaptation measures for our cities, we cannot forget to accommodate this group of people, who are the most vulnerable and therefore in greater need of adaptation.

With increased temperatures, there’s bound to be more and more pests, insects and bugs coming for our food, but also, bearing disease (Niles & Salerno, 2018). Heat waves and dust winds will have us retreat from the outdoors, unless we find a way to dissipate the heat. The case of sponge cities, though theoretical, is a strong one. In a nutshell, it entails the use of green infrastructure as opposed to grey infrastructure. This is for the purposes of reducing the impact of sea waves (e.g., mangrove forests), inland flooding (forest cover allowing for infiltration) and heat waves (cooling through evapotranspiration). Nature is always ‘just right’.

Something borrowed

The following example of adaptation is an early warning system designed for urban and coastal flooding in the UK. It’s a 3D visualization tool for Torbay, a region exposed to flooding (Chen et al., 2018).

Using this tool, one can evaluate the impact of a flood on critical infrastructure (hospitals, power stations, roads), and with the information, be in a better position to prescribe adaptation strategies.

The framework achieves this through simulations, where one can model various flood scenarios. With the critical infrastructure mapped (in a map layer), the flood map is then overlaid. Given data such as the flood depth and duration, one would be able to identify the infrastructures that would experience disruptions during the modelled flood.

Using such a tool, makes the risk to infrastructure and related services easier to communicate to stakeholders. The tool also allows the input of data relating to adaptation capacity and the effect that that would have in reducing flood risk; therefore, the adaptive solutions can also be modelled. Running various adaptations, would allow for more informed decisions on what solutions to implement. For a resource constrained undertaking, the tool could help in the identification of the most affordable yet efficient adaptations.

It could go wrong

The reverse of ‘arresting the situation’, is referred to as maladaptation, where results from interventions have negative effects that could in fact result in increased vulnerability. For instance, a Governor from Saint Louis, Senegal, saw to the building of a 4-meter-wide channel that would act as a new outlet for the Senegal River. This was to reduce pressure on the existing outlet and therefore lessen the likelihood of floods at the coast’s plains.

All very innocent and successful at first, but it led to another problem that makes one think, we should leave creation to the Maker himself. In the spun of a decade, the channel’s width increased from the initial 4 meters to 2 kilometres. Ocean water inundated, resulting in salinization- which puts an end to coastal farming and other economic activities that depend on marshlands and their ability to absorb pollutants and improve water quality (Andersson-Sköld et al., 2015).

To counter the threats and weaknesses that might result from such adaptation efforts, it is important to take note of the trade-offs involved at the ‘life-cycle’ scale.

What else?

It’s important to lean into experimentation and its potential in devising solutions. The complexity and uncertainty surrounding climate change and its effects on our cities, translates to a complicated adaptation process. Experiments could allow for solutions that are designed around the current resource potential of these communities, ensuring that they are flexible (not only for transferability but also to accommodate growth) and encourage participation from stakeholders, which would provide an opportunity for social learning and encourage innovation. It would be a great way to find solutions that truly address a city’s vulnerabilities.

Stella Nyambura Mbau PhD





Mbau Father-Daughter Doctor Duo

Elias P. Mbau (PhD in Finance) & Stella N. Mbau (PhD in Technology)