Crossroads of Disaster

Climate Change + Rapid Urbanization
Crossroads of Disaster_illustration by Gary Neill
Corydon Ireland

Imagine the world as a roadway. At the next exit, as we speed along, is a city. The first road sign we see will surely read: Warning. Disaster Ahead. 

Worldwide, cities are growing rapidly, especially those that are very poor, and their infrastructures—for clean water, public health, security, and transportation—are being overwhelmed. Now add the cloud already looming over that world roadway: global climate change. Next, brace yourself for an epic collision of cities and climate.

The world’s cities, beset by poverty in the present and threatened by climate strains in the future, compose a “unique space where two problems are coming together,” said Ronak B. Patel, a clinical instructor in emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School and a faculty member of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, at a Radcliffe Exploratory Seminar he organized last year to puzzle out ways of avoiding the coming collision of urban poverty and climate uncertainty.

Climate Change and Rapid Urbanization: Crossroads of a Disaster” included experts in public health, engineering, demography, disaster-relief, economics, climate science, and other pertinent fields. They came from Harvard, from across the United States, and from Italy, India, and the UK.

Since 2003, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study has sponsored such small-group explorations of a single issue. This seminar broadened an investigation that Patel had already started. In a New England Journal of Medicine editorial in August 2009, he had written of an “emerging humanitarian disaster” in the world’s cities that, among other outcomes, could prompt disease pandemics worldwide—flaring outward like fire at the far edges of a bomb. Central to the problem, he said, is demographics.

By 2008, for the first time in human history, half of all humans—some 3.4 billion—lived in cities. By 2030, urban areas will have swelled by 1.6 billion more, and rural populations will have shrunk by 28 million. The most rapidly growing cities are in the developing world; 60 percent of urban growth is from expanding slums. And in the face of climate change, urban slums are highly vulnerable to drought, floods, sea level rise, and population displacements.

Participants discussed the recent catastrophic flooding in Brazil and the 2010 floods that put one-fifth of Pakistan under water, but the seminar was about more than case studies. Experts turned to their experiences in Manila, Dar es Salaam, Mumbai, and Nairobi.

Cities in Kenya

Nairobi is an example of how cities in the developing world—even without climate change—struggle with shaken and strained systems for water, sanitation, housing, security, and public health. Look at just one measure, said Patel: infant mortality rates. In Kenya, 74 infants per 100,000 die before the age of one. It’s about the same in rural areas (76), though greater than in Nairobi as a whole (57). But in urban slums like Nairobi’s Kibera, the mortality rate is 91 infants per 100,000. Among slum dwellers age five and under, the mortality rate shoots up to 151. Patel called the number “grotesque.”

Kibera, a warren of chaotic housing one mile square, is an emblem of rapid, dysfunctional urbanization in the developing world. A recent census placed the population around 170,000, but given the pace of unplanned growth, no one really knows, and the true number could be over a million. Half the residents are 15 or younger. Income is $1.25 a day. Houses are 10 by 10 feet and have tin roofs and walls of wattle or recycled wood. There is no public water, no police force, little electricity, and no sewers. Open ditches run down the middle of the alleys. Human waste is discarded in plastic bags. Kiberans call them “flying toilets.” 

This informal settlement, the second largest in Africa, shows how many of the world’s cities grow: haphazardly, and from the bottom up. Add climate change, said Patel, and those slums are doubly vulnerable. Housing is fragile. Some settlements teeter on hillsides, threatened by mudslides; others hover above earthquake faults; still others occupy floodplains. Kibera is in a valley-like depression above a landfill; flooding is frequent.

Complex Solutions

Cities and climate change are already colliding in the developing world. Now is the time for mitigation and adaptation. Any solution will be complex. “Trying to say it’s boxed into one area or owned by one group is really not the way we’re going to succeed,” said Patel.

Radcliffe’s ethic of inclusion helped explore the complexities of the issue, he said. “The space they created to do this was very valuable. This collection of people was very different.” Around the time the seminar convened, other meetings—in Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Johannesburg—grappled with climate change. But Patel said none of those investigated local-level responses to climate change and rapid urbanization. The Radcliffe seminar emphasized the importance of collecting street-by-street data in vulnerable cities.

Seminar Results

The seminar has already produced results. For one, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) established a formal partnership with the Brookings Institution to develop an online network of experts. A second collaboration, between HHI and the Department of Emergency Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, plans to measure public health vulnerabilities using remote sensing and city-level maps. Its partners are the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

The seminar also set in motion interfaculty collaboration at Harvard, bringing together HHI, the Graduate School of Design, and the Harvard University Center for the Environment. “This is a pressing issue,” said Patel. “The Harvard community has a responsibility to engage with it. We can bring a lot to the table.” 

He and others have drafted a summary article on the seminar, along with an editorial on the urgent challenges of climate change and rapid urbanization. Both will be published in the fall.

In addition, the seminar has inspired a Harvard Humanitarian Climate Summit scheduled for 2013. “The same general mix” of world experts will be invited, said Patel, but in far greater numbers: up to 100.

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