Mozambique + 2 more

Cities, disasters and livelihoods

By David Sanderson, Technical and Policy Adviser, CARE International UK
Shortly after the floods in Venezuela that killed 30,000 people last December1, the country's President Chavez publicly blamed his predecessors for allowing shelters to be built on dangerous land in the capital city Caracas. He was right: building in these places led to unnecessary death and destruction from mudslides and flooding. But was he about to stop such developments himself? It seems unlikely. And had much serious action taken place before the disaster to mitigate the floods' devastating effects? Not really, since those worst affected were amongst the city's poorest.

If disasters are the consequence of a natural hazard such as flood affecting a vulnerable group such as Caracas's urban poor, then the rapidly urbanising cities and towns in Africa, Asia and Latin America represent the greatest concentration of vulnerable people there has ever been. Urbanisation today is extraordinary. The facts are often stated but mean little in their enormity: latest UN estimates are that by 2007 half the world's population will live in cities. By 2025 this will probably double to 5 billion. This represents phenomenal growth of an urban environment where 'up to half the populations of the largest cities of the developing world are in unplanned and often illegal squatter colonies'2.

For those born into poverty in urban areas, and newly arriving poor migrants from the countryside, cities are dangerous places. Many poor urban dwellers live on the worst quality land: on the edges of ravines, on flood prone embankments, on slopes liable to mudslide or collapse, in densely packed areas where fires easily start, on roundabouts at busy intersections. The Red Cross describes this unwanted demarcation 'the social geography' of many towns and cities which 'reflects the vulnerability of different zones to natural hazards - often with disastrous consequences for the poor'3.

The scale of the problem

Large scale disasters between June 1999 and March 2000 alone highlight the terrible convergence of urbanisation and natural hazards. These include two earthquakes in Turkey's heavily urbanised north eastern region in August and November 1999. The official death toll of the first larger earthquake was over 17,000. 44,000 people were injured and nearly 300,000 homes either damaged or collapsed4. Venezuela's floods destroyed over 23,000 houses and damaged a further 64 0005. The two cyclones that hit India's state of Orissa in October killed well over 10,000 people and made 8 million homeless. The second cyclone devastated the state's administrative capital, Bhubaneswar, the commercial capital, Cuttack, and the port town of Paradip before moving off to smaller towns and villages.

Heavy rains and cyclones in February and March this year in Mozambique lead to the worst flooding in fifty years and brought widespread devastation to the capital city, Maputo as well as to Matola city. Upwards of one million were directly affected. Water and sanitation services were disrupted, causing outbreaks of dysentery and cholera. Newspaper reports described the disaster as destroying the rehabilitation efforts of what had been until only a few years ago the World's poorest country.

These instances are headlines from a time period of only ten months. They all caused large scale loss and catastrophic damage to cities, towns and villages. But it is no surprise that increasing urbanisation correlates with increased risk, as unplanned growth rarely takes account of physical hazards. Many of the world's largest and some of its fastest growing cities are in earthquake zones. Yet disasters come in different sizes and over longer time periods. For millions of poor urban dwellers, managing disaster is an everyday occurrence, less noticed by outsiders, but just as insidious. This may include the fires that wipe out squatter neighbourhoods, the devastation brought by HIV, the cumulative health problems resulting from poorly ventilated shelter, or the long term effects on children of pollution. Such less noticeable disasters erode livelihoods and cost lives: Bangladesh's 1991 infant mortality rate amongst slum and squatter settlements was over twice rural rates6.

Urban poverty and disaster - two separate issues?

Disasters turn back the development clock, destroying years of effort and labour and perpetuating poverty for those already poor. On a city and national level, they destroy investments and infrastructure and drain national budgets and international development funds. Yet disasters are rarely, if ever, included within urban development strategies. Governments of urbanising countries may have entirely different ministries responsible for emergency management and urban development, one with little knowledge of the other's activities. India's Ministry of Urban Affairs' 1999 Draft National Slum Policy makes no reference at all to the vulnerability of slum dwellers to natural disaster. Yet the same ministry estimates that 1% of India's total housing stock is destroyed by natural disaster each year7.

Conversely, national disaster management strategies often omit urban settlements. In many parts of Africa, disaster management is synonymous with rural food security needs. Ghana's National Disaster Management Office (NADMO) and Ethiopia's Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Centre (DPPC) are almost exclusively rural in focus. India's National Centre for Disaster Management (NCDM) and all national disaster response activities - including those in cities - are the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture. An underlying problem is that many official disaster management organisations remain seriously under-resourced, with little political or legislative support and almost no funds. In his study of national early warning systems, Andrew Maskrey concludes that 'even when national disaster management systems have been formally created, good co ordination between different government and other organisations does not necessarily exist, leading to confusion, contradictions, overlapping functions, and gaps in responsibility'8. Whilst the separation between city and disaster management continues, and the latter remains weak, valuable opportunities for reducing urban risk will be lost. The inevitable consequences of authorities allowing the building on unsafe hillsides or in flood prone areas will remain largely ignored until disaster strikes.

Some recent initiatives however by intergovernmental agencies and donors are beginning to address the need. Paragraphs 170-176 of the 1996 Habitat Agenda, 'Disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness, and post-disaster rehabilitation capabilities', describe the need for measures to reduce vulnerability in urban settlements. The World Bank's Disaster Management Facility formed in 1998 aims to 'mainstream mitigation' of natural disaster. And whilst India's draft urban policy does not describe natural disaster, other statements indicate the need for action: 'time has come that the elements of disaster mitigation and prevention should be included in the Government [of India's] policies and strategies developed for implementation of disaster prevention and mitigation'9.

Disasters and livelihoods

In programming terms, sustainable livelihoods methodologies provide a valuable opportunity for combining disaster reduction and development interventions in one unifying approach. Several agencies and donors are currently developing livelihood based approaches as bases for policy and practice formulation. These include DFID, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), non-governmental organisations (NGOs) including Oxfam and CARE, and research institutes including the Institute of Development Studies (IDS)10. A common understanding of livelihoods is given by Chambers and Conway: 'A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (both natural and social) and activities required for a means of living; a livelihood is sustainable which can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base'11. The key element of livelihoods approaches is that people are the starting point. Livelihoods describes how people obtain 'assets', what they do with them, what gets in their way in obtaining them, and who controls the resources on which assets are based. Importantly it includes the concept that assets 'buffer' households against disasters (shocks) as well as stresses, eg ill health. Assets are not only physical, eg land; they are also social, eg good relations with neighbours; human, eg good entrepreneurial skills; financial, eg savings; and arguably, political, eg having a say in democratic processes.

Livelihoods thinking emerges mostly from rural natural resources and food security methodologies, the latter relating in particular to drought-induced famine from Africa. Yet livelihoods finds remarkable resonance in understanding the complexities of urban poverty and in linking poverty with disasters. In particular:

  • Linking micro to macro issues. Livelihoods does not advocate community level or municipal interventions; rather it describes the links between all levels that affect poor urban dwellers, from how households secure a means of living to the policies that control them
  • Highlighting the layering and complexity of controls by institutions and their regulations that affect the poor's access to resources. Whilst controls on the poor may be legal, eg by municipalities, they may also be as a result of illegal activity, eg drug gangs that control neighbourhoods
  • Indicating access to resources as a key concept, including the ability of poor urban dwellers to access health care, food, employment, shelter or political power
  • Stating the importance of income as a means of accessing many of those resources, eg food, clothing, building materials, education
  • Emphasising the importance of household level assets, including social as well as physical assets.

In urban settlements the livelihood strategies of the poor are complex. Contexts are changing and uncertain, with rapid urban growth, increasing crime, an ill-equipped public sector, and intense competition for limited resources. Household members employ varied living strategies, often living on credit, surviving and competing in markets, undertaking seasonal work and earning incomes in the informal economy. As Hugh Stretton stated over twenty years ago: 'The life of a modern city is very complicated. The citizens have intricate patterns of common and conflicting interests and tastes and beliefs, and individually and collectively they have very unequal capacities to get what they want for themselves or from one another. From that tangle of powers and purposes comes a social life so complicated and partly unpredictable that any understanding of it has to be incomplete'12.

Figure 1 presents CARE's Household Livelihood Security (HLS) approach. HLS presents a tool for understanding how urban households live. Yet it is not prescriptive in advocating interventions. Rather it is a 'routemap' on which the main elements that concern living are marked, from micro level household activities to macro level controls of resources. A key aspect of HLS and other livelihoods approaches is the role that assets play in strengthening households. Descriptions of assets vary. Common to several interpretations however are the following:

Financial assets. Most resource access in urban areas results from cash exchanges. For the urban poor, as with other city dwellers, the building of financial assets is almost always a key activity for greater livelihood security. Financial assets are often fragile; many urban poor live by arranging complex systems of loans and debt servicing, borrowing small amounts and calling in debts from others to pay bills as they arise. A large proportion of the urban poor are forced to work in the informal sector, earning low incomes for long hours of work. Competition for work is intense, usually making incomes very low. For such workers, insurance, health care or sick pay do not exist. Working in poor conditions serves to increase long term vulnerability to disease and ill health. This is increasingly the case regarding child labour, where many lifelong health problems can begin.

The informal economy allows for a diversity of ways for earning income to acquire resources. However those resources can come at a high price where the poorest often pay more than their better off neighbours for basic services. Research in Lusaka, Zambia, found water purchased by low income groups to be nearly ten times more expensive than a subsequently installed water supply system13. Food can also come at a high cost, despite the existence in some countries of 'urban agriculture': 'food expenditures can make up as much as 60% to 80%of total expenditure amongst low income households'14. Yet recent studies in Ghana point to increasing malnutrition amongst the urban poor15.

Physical assets. Tenure is a key physical asset to acquire. Squatters and slum dwellers will endure dangerous conditions to be close to sources of income whilst in the rental sector many families may share crowded, poor quality illegally divided tenements. In central Delhi for instance a large and notorious squatter settlement has lived within the designated flood plane of the Yemuna River for over twenty five years. The settlement is forced to evacuate at least once a year to the busy roadside whilst their shelters are flooded for upwards of one month. Yet the settlement is thriving, with small businesses, a school and a vibrant property market. The regular flooding is seen as the price to pay for living a the centre of the city for low cost16. Having a degree of ownership of land therefore is often the beginning point for households to consolidate shelters. A better built building reduces the vulnerability to sudden impact disasters, eg an earthquake, or to fire.

Human assets. Cities provide a variety of opportunities for earning incomes. The benefits of different household members entering into a range of activities based on skills, knowledge and ability increases the chances of sustaining a household. However some strategies serve to increase vulnerability, threatening household sustainability: young children working in factories may miss out on an adequate education, and childhood, and may suffer damaged health.

HLS is described as 'sustainable and adequate access to income and other resources to meet basic needs, and to build up assets to withstand shocks and stresses'. This can be represented diagrammatically as follows:

Figure 1. Household Livelihood Security (HLS) model applied to urban settlements

The sequence followed by the diagram, beginning at the household and following the arrows, is:

1. Household members have basic needs: food, water, shelter, education, etc

2. To meet needs household members access resources or services, eg water, food, shelter, healthcare, electricity. Most access is gained through payment. Payment is secured by undertaking productive activities, eg selling labour to gain income to pay for resources needed

3. There are barriers to accessing resources/services which for the poor usually prevent or reduce the quality and quantity of resources accessible. Two barriers (of which there may be many) are:

- Position in society, eg culture, gender, religion, status, being poor

- Control of resources by structures, eg government, private sector employers, and processes, eg laws, regulations. Regulations may discriminate in particular against the poor

4. Depending on the degree of success of overcoming barriers, resources/services secured by household members are used:

- To meet immediate basic needs

- To build up assets (social, physical, financial and human) over time

5. Assets are used:

- To buffer households against stresses and shocks, eg sickness, fires, sudden unemployment

- To increase the ability to improve access, eg improved education (human assets) may lead to better paid jobs.

Social assets. Low income urban settlements are often characterised as having limited social assets, ie lack of extended family structure, established networks of contacts or strong relationships of trust. However for many newly urbanising groups, which rely on mutual help and support, social assets can be strong. Many livelihood project interventions concern the building of social assets. Focusing on the threat of disaster can be a key resource in developing sustainable risk reduction measures. In work carried out in Lima, Peru amongst low income market traders17, mutual distrust between the voluntary fire services and the market traders was cited as a major problem. Fire services were never called by traders when fire broke out, and the fire services were frustrated at not being alerted. Through the organisation of meetings and joint training events, however, misunderstandings between both parties were addressed. The fire men and women became accepted by traders as professionals performing a useful job in protecting their livelihoods. In time, as the level of mutual trust improved, the local fire service organised mock evacuations with traders and advised on fire reduction measures which the traders enacted. The fire station was also repainted with donations from the traders and became a forum for neighbourhood meetings.

Assets and more sustainable livelihoods

according to Chambers and Conway, a livelihood is sustainable when it 'can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks, maintain its capability and assets, and provide sustainable livelihood opportunities for the next generation'18. Within the livelihoods approach, the threat of disaster is implicit to everyday life. At household level, assets buffer households against shocks and stresses. Conversely, a disaster occurs when assets are 'swept away', directly affecting a household. Livelihood strategies concern the building of assets over time, and in so doing, disaster reduction at community level becomes a development activity.

Building social assets in particular can increase the chances of greater self reliance amongst households and neighbourhoods. A recent example is provided from the Venezuela floods in Catuche, a neighbourhood of Caracas. According to Manuel Larreal from the organisation Ecumenical Action-ACT19, 'the organisation of the neighbourhood and the solidarity of the people saved hundreds of lives'. He states that on the night of December 15, 'as the flooding progressed, community members mobilised to assist one another. Neighbours who knew each other and had worked together for years communicated swiftly the news of the rising water. Older residents were helped from their homes by younger neighbours. When a few were reluctant to leave because they didn't believe the threat or because they were afraid their few possessions could be stolen, neighbours broke down doors and carried people forcibly to safety.

'In one incident where we were trying unsuccessfully to kick down the heavy door of a woman who refused to leave her house, a young gang member came along, pulled out a pistol and fired into the lock, allowing the door to be opened. The gang member then pointed his gun at the woman and ordered her out of her house. Seconds after she left the dwelling, the house fell into the raging current.'

In Catuche, 'perhaps as few as 15 people died, a very small figure compared to other similar neighbourhoods where hundreds lost their lives'20.These life saving actions only resulted after several years of community activities addressing development issues concerning shelter and sanitation. From a livelihoods perspective, the social assets built up over time resulted in preparedness actions that saved many lives.

Achieving this level of neighbourhood level self reliance lies is at the heart of many livelihood focused programmes. The Programme of Support for Poverty Elimination and Community Transformation, (PROSPECT) managed by CARE in Zambia seeks to achieve this through forming community groups around the installation and subsequent management of water supply. The project, initiated in 1998 and funded by DFID, is a continuation of two previous projects, Peri-Urban Self Help (PUSH) I, begun in 1990, and its successor PUSH II. Working in 14 urban settlements with a combined population of over 600,000, the purpose of this five year programme is for community led Area Based Organisations (ABOs) to develop, manage and maintain basic infrastructure and services. To achieve this the programme combines ABO formation with infrastructure delivery and making available savings and loans programmes with skills training. Whilst the programme concerns delivering services with community support, services are in fact the vehicle around which social assets are being built. This is being approached in several ways:

  • Through the promotion of income-generating activities and the development of savings and loans to improve financial status (financial assets)
  • Through personal empowerment and livelihood improvement training to increase knowledge and skills (human assets)
  • Through community participation in ABOs which builds community relationships for better group based activities (social assets).

In practice, livelihoods programming belongs to the same family as Action Planning21 and Participatory Rapid Appraisal (PRA). The tools for enacting livelihoods approaches are based on participatory approaches that empower communities to identify, prioritise and act on problems and opportunities. The project Promoting Linkages for Urban Sustainability (PLUS), also managed by CARE and funded by DFID, is seeking to use these tools within a livelihoods approach. PLUS will use an iterative process of 'action oriented learning' (AOL) amongst vulnerable communities in India's capital city Delhi. Through a participatory approach to the prioritisation of vulnerabilities, as well as capacities, the AOL process seeks to enable community group to identify, plan implement initiatives to address neighbourhood problems, and in so doing mobilise action towards self-reliance. Issues are likely to include in particular water, sanitation and health. To achieve consensus leading to the implementation of risk reduction measures, a series of neighbourhood action planning workshops are planned. The project aims to reduce the vulnerability of 35,000 participating slum dwellers over six years.

Making cities sustainable for all

The examples above describe what are primarily community level interventions. At a city management and policy level, actions leading to reduced risk need to be taken. In livelihoods parlance, the structures and processes that control access of the poor to income and resources need to be aware of the risks that poor urban dwellers face, and take steps to reduce them. To these ends most good urban programming works at both neighbourhood and policy formulation levels. Much urban legislation however still results, if sometimes unintentionally, in increased vulnerability of the poor: the prevention of permanent services to illegal settlements can increase ill health, whilst the withholding of tenure inhibits consolidation of buildings, resulting in poorly built shelters that easily collapse, catch fire or harbour disease.

If the poor's increasing vulnerability to disasters is not addressed by policy, management or implementation, then, simply put, urban living for them cannot be sustainable. At policy level, gaps between disasters and urban planning need to be closed. Proactive measures to reduce the threat of disaster need to be an integral aspect of urban planning. Maskrey concludes that 'the overall emphasis of national disaster management agencies needs to shift from one of emergency response towards an emphasis on risk reduction'22. Yet many efforts continue to be misguided: 'In most countries it is extremely rare to find risk analysis to take account of the social, economic, institutional and cultural aspects of vulnerability' (Maskrey, 1997).

The development of building regulations in earthquake prone cities provides a good example of integrating risk reduction considerations into mainstream city planning. Collapsing buildings followed by fire are the main cause of death in earthquakes23. Yet as the earthquakes in Turkey in 1999 demonstrated, regulations can be ignored leading to tragic consequences. After the earthquake builders of high rise buildings were in hiding, fearing the revenge of angry mobs who blamed them for building inadequately. Reasons for a lack of enforcement may be corruption, a lack of political will for enactment, or a weak legislature. But for most of the growing number of urban poor, who by definition live illegally, the enforcement of building regulations is a non-issue.

If formal controls therefore are outside the remit of those most vulnerable, new approaches need to be developed to reduce their vulnerability. Greater emphasis must be placed on proactive community-led risk reduction measures. At neighbourhood level the building of self reliance, and crucially, 'ownership' of the problem, is critical. Programmes which focus on the building of assets at household level leave families and neighbourhoods less vulnerable, ie better able to withstand shocks and stresses. It is this approach that is at the core of CARE's urban programmes currently being implemented in Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, India, Bangladesh and Madagascar.

In programming terms, risk reduction must become an indispensable component of urban development programmes. As the World Bank's Disaster Management Facility states, disaster mitigation needs to be mainstreamed into development practice. Livelihoods approaches to urban poverty problems provide a way of seeing vulnerability to shocks and stresses as an integral part of the development picture. Whilst livelihoods programming is at a comparatively early stage in its development, and has a rurally focused origin, it appears that it has much to offer in understanding the dynamics of urban poverty, and the role that disasters play. Such approaches place the vulnerable at the centre, and in so doing aim to make city dwelling by the poor sustainable.


1 Office for the Co ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (2000), Geneva, situation report, January 2000

2 Walter J Ed. (1998) World Disasters Report 1999, Switzerland, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, page 19

3 see reference 4

4 ReliefWeb (2000) Earthquakes Situation Report No. 36. Period covered: 21 January 2000 - 28 January 2000

5 US Agency for International Development (USAID) (2000), Venezuela Floods Fact Sheet #11 (FY 2000) 4 Feb 2000, Washington, press release

6 see reference 4

7 Ministry of Urban Affairs and Employment (1999), Agenda 21, report on promoting sustainable human settlement development, 17th session of the UN Commission on Human Settlements, Nairobi, May 1999, India, government publication, page 21

8 Maskrey A (1997) Report on National and Local Capabilities for Early Warning, LA RED, Lima, Network for Social Studies on Disaster Prevention in Latin America, page 41

9 see reference 8

10 Ashley C and Carney D (1999) Sustainable livelihoods: lessons form early experience, London, Department for International Development Publication, page 5

11 Chambers R and Conway G (1992) Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Practical Concepts for the 21st Century. IDS Discussion Paper 296, Brighton, page 7

12 Stretton H (1978) Urban planning in rich and poor countries, Oxford, Oxford University Press, page 36

13 Osborne N (1998) A review of PUSH/PROSPECT, CARE document

14 Ruel M, Haddad L and Garrett J (1999), Some urban facts of life: implications for research and policy, World Development, Vol 27, No 11, PP 1917-1938.

15 Garrett J (1999) Urban challenges to food and nutrition security, New York, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

16 Sharma and Gupta (1998) TDR project Reducing urban risk, India. Progress report. Delhi, SEEDS report

17 the NGO ECOCIUDAD, in particular Luiz Cortez and Liliana Miranda, with firemen from Caqueta fire station no. 65; described in Sanderson D (1999) Implementing action planning to reduce urban risk, Delhi, Open House International, Vol 24, No 3 PP 33-39.

18 See reference 12

19 Jeffrey P (2000) Lives saved in Caracas slum. Source: ReliefWeb

20 see reference 20

21 see for instance Hamdi N (1997), Action Planning for cities, London, Wiley and Sons

22 see reference 9

23 Blaikie P, Cannon T, Davis I and Wisner B (1994) At Risk: Natural hazards, people's vulnerability and disasters, London, Routledge.