Cities and climate change: Readjusting notions of risk and resilience

Meet Shuaib Lwasa, Professor of Urban Resilience and Global Development
Professor Shuaib Lwasa

With the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) currently taking place in Egypt, climate change is once again widely discussed. How can we make cities more resilient against climate change? Should countries with the highest CO2 emissions financially compensate countries that bear the brunt of greenhouse gases?

For our Professor Portraints series, we posed these questions to Professor Shuaib Lwasa, the newly appointed Professor of Urban Resilience and Global Development at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). He studies climate change and innovative strategies to mitigate the effects of global warming, and shares with us his ideas on this wicked problem.
 

Shuaib Lwasa was born and raised in Kampala, Uganda. After an undergraduate degree in geography, he obtained a master’s degree in spatial planning at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. He then went to the Netherlands on a scholarship for a second master’s degree in geo-information science for urban planning and management applications in Enschede. He continued exploring the field of urban development by pursuing a PhD in urban land economics at Makerere University.

During the past twenty years, Lwasa has worked in the academic world, rising from lecturer to professor at Makerere University. He combined his academic work with various roles outside of academia. He has held many advisory roles, working for the United Nations and other international organizations.

As an expert on urban land economics and sustainability, his research focuses on cities in African countries, including Uganda, Nigeria, Kenia, and Cameroon. Lwasa has also studied linkages between poverty and environment in urban systems in places such as Uganda and Latin America. He was the coordinating lead author of one of the chapters in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report 6 on urban systems and human settlements.

After a recent stint in Groningen at the Global Center on Adaptation, working as a principal researcher on climate adaptation governance, he is now based in The Hague. ISS is grateful to have him on board.
 

You are very knowledgeable about urban development in Kampala. What kind of research did you conduct on the city?

‘My exploration of urban development in Kampala started with my PhD research, for which I examined the process of the so-called ‘urban land market’ of the city. Or, in other words: how the dynamics of supply and demand influence the nature and type of housing development. Who needs land and how is land exchanged in the city? Analyzing this process revealed so many other processes that were taking place under the surface, like actors in land alienation. When this happens, land is bought and demarcated by the authorities. It is then allocated to a particular party that shows interest in it. This party can use the land, as part of the city’s urban development plan. This is an example of a formal route to obtain land. Likewise, there are also many informal routes.’

How does this play out? Does it mean that, for instance, big companies with strong lobby forces have more chances of obtaining land compared to local communities that might deploy informal ways of accessing land?

‘The so-called “land grabbing” that you are referring to is very much driven by public agencies. It favours businesspeople who know the formal roads to claiming land. However, wealthy and powerful actors do not necessarily need to prevail over less privileged ones. In some areas in Kampala informal processes are equally, or even more, important when it comes to the division of land. In these kinds of cities in the Global South, there is a continuous interaction between the formal and the informal in relation to urban development. Often, people start to build something in an informal way. Then the authorities follow with their plans, incorporating the already existing urban reality that people have created.

Hence, the key recommendation that came from my PhD research was, and still is, to embrace informality when it comes to developing the city. This informality helps to redistribute the land and make sure that small actors are not pushed aside.’
 

Incorporating the flexible and innovative approaches towards urban development of the Global South can enrich the urban landscape of the Global North.

This is very different from the Netherlands. Here, the formal has become the main road to urban development. Sometimes to people’s dismay, when bureaucracy and strict regulations prevent innovative and creative local initiatives. It seems as if the Global North can learn something from the Global South when it comes to this.

‘Indeed. It would be good to incorporate some of the flexible and innovative approaches towards urban development of the Global South in countries such as the Netherlands. Here, for instance, many rules are centralized, which can prevent local initiatives from flourishing. I would like to point to the terminology "heterogenous configurations" in this respect, as they give the agency back to the actors.’

What are heterogenous configurations? 

In one of his articles, Shuaib Lwasa and his co-authors refer to ‘heterogenous configurations’. These reflect the great diversity in infrastructure of the Global South. By coining this terminology, they intend to complement urban theory. Moreover, they propose another analytical framework that contrasts with the modern infrastructure ideal. This ideal is based on the Global North and has become the universal norm.

Lwasa and his authors counter this. They argue to use heterogenous configurations, which creates the possibility to make apt comparisons and include a great variety of dynamic processes and artefacts (such as technologies, relations, capacities, and operations) in the analysis of an urban landscape. By deploying this lens, urban environments and their artefacts become dynamic, full of power and social meaning. Furthermore, they can be observed as part of a web of relations of actors and their decision-making processes. This helps to think about infrastructure from the perspective of the people living in that environment.

You have recently published a chapter in the book ‘Rethinking Urban Risk and Settlement in the Global South’ in which you and your co-authors propose a new notion on risk assessment. Can you tell us more about this?

‘So far, the approach of authorities has been to move people who work in zones that are highly impacted by climate change. This strategy tends to side pass that which communities themselves value. People feel connected to a certain area and find the proximity to services and employment very important. That is why they want to work in these high-risk areas. And often move back to them after a disaster has occurred. In Uganda we saw this after the floods.

Authorities should recognize different interpretations of risks and re-adjust power structures to rebuild communities from within. Therefore, we propose a new framework, one that transcends economic valuation and includes the notion of risk of the inhabitants themselves. Governments can move inhabitants temporarily away and enable them to resettle after a risk has materialized. Moreover, a lot can be done in between disasters to build resilience and systemically reduce risks.

In some Latin-American countries, for instance, safety zones have been constructed between buildings in case of future earthquakes. Unfortunately, many possible solutions are still untapped due to a lack of financial resources. Banks are reluctant to loan money in these cases. Consequently, investments in the infrastructure of risky cities remain low.’

How can this be overcome?

‘A new innovative way to acquire finances is crowdsourcing. The African diaspora, for instance, can help fund these initiatives. Mobilizing local communities is another option. When public institutions support them, the small savings of these communities can create an independent financial force with which cities can advance. More support is needed to accelerate these developments.’

Many African countries experience rapid urbanization. How to make sure that these megacities are resilient against climate change, now and in the future?

‘In this article, I argue that these cities can create business opportunities by promoting recovery, recycling, re-use, and repair. With such a circular economy, these cities can reduce resource use. Hybrid systems for urban water management offer another solution. It means that water can be used in smart ways in times of drought or water abundance. Urban infrastructure innovations are needed, and centralized systems should be disrupted. Moreover, cities should rethink land use to become net-zero cities. To realize this, it is important that they plan, govern, and manage cities in new ways.’

One of the urgent topics on the current COP27 agenda is the question of financial compensation by countries in the Global North to countries in the Global South. Pakistan, a country that recently endured atrocious floodings, is one of the vehement supporters of this idea. What is your opinion on this matter?

‘I would propose to realize a fund within the Ministry of Finance of a particular country. The fund could be deployed to rebuild the livelihoods of people when disaster strikes. Or even before, by investing in early warning systems. The fund can accrue value during periods when nothing happens. It should not be regarded as aid but as an assurance. In Kenia and Tanzania, a consortium of NGOs already has similar systems in place which works well. This could serve as an example to governments. Furthermore, a risk transfer system should consist of various components. In the case of Pakistan, I would recommend a combination of technical solutions, financial assurance and implementing risk prevention mechanisms.’
 

World leaders should fight the war on climate change

COP27 brings the urgency of climate change once again to the fore, as is done so often. It is not always easy to remain optimistic when all the discussions about the critical situation of our planet do not lead to the necessary concrete action.

‘Indeed. The evidence is right in front of us, while the will to act is so low. Why not walk the talk? I am a bit disappointed. We are close to all the forewarned tipping points of recent academic reports. It is mind boggling that financial resources are spent on war or space tourism, instead of on society’s future existence. I would like to call on leaders to fight the war on climate change. It is time to act now!’

 

Professor Portraits interview series                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             This interview is part of a series of Professor Portraits, highlighting the work and background of professors at the International Institute of Social Studies.

 

Previous interviews in the series

  • Arul Chib

    The agency of marginalized communities

    Professor Portraits - Arul Chib tells us more about his research, his values and his personal use of digital technologies
  • Lorenzo Pellegrini

    Keep those fossil fuels under the soil

    Professor Portraits - On 14 September, Lorenzo Pellegrini will hold his inaugural lecture. In this interview, he gives a glimpse of what the audience can expect.
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Professor Shuaib Lwasa

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