To keep our cities from crumbling, let’s create smart slums
At least two people were killed in recent flooding in Dar es Salaam, eight in Durban, and 15 in Rubanda, a town in western Uganda. Floods in African cities are becoming a recurrent phenomenon. While climate change is a contributor, poor city planning and design, old infrastructure and archaic expansion are also to blame. Thus with non-functioning drainage systems, floods will continue to be a permanent feature of seasonal rains, especially in slums.
If we look at Lagos, for instance, a poorly planned drainage system means that flooding is a costly annual expense. This holds back progress for a majority of the 21 million state dwellers as it disrupts people’s health, economic activity and life, and it rolls back progress.
Now Dar es Salaam, Abidjan, Accra, Johannesb urg and other African cities are playing catch-up with rapid unplanned urbanisation. Thus, while the problem appears more acute in Lagos, other African cities are also experiencing a strain on existing infrastructure due to rapid urbanisation and the challenge of preventing the formation of new slums.
Africans need solutions for the African cities we have. With recurring floods inevitable, insurance companies ought to design affordable products allowing people to more easily recover from knowledge of community members affected by floods to better understand how best to enhance their resilience. They should be partners in designing the cities of the future to ensure that their needs fit with the wider plan of the country and the region. We need to earn the trust of the community to show our intentions are not simply in response to an emergency, but part of a plan to create better opportunities for people in the city.
Ultimately, trust will be built when we find a way to employ workers and source materials locally and when fewer lives are lost during the next floods and there is limited business disruption.
While smart cities are the future, we have data points in slums where innovations have kept them alive alongside cities. We can learn from Lagos’s Makoko, for instance, a smart slum designed with ingenuity to capture the possibilities of the environment while creating a connected community supporting an ecosystem. Smart slums in Dar es Salaam, Abidjan, Accra and Johannesburg have as their greatest assets ingenious women, youth and men. Integrating their knowledge and knowhow can help provide full data access for the smartest urban area; integrating parallel, yet interconnected dwellers. Yet they, too, must transform and progress.
Ultimately, the proof is in the design. Nairobi and Cape Town are set to achieve smart city status for leveraging technology to connect people and to improve business and trading as well as adopting environmentally friendly technologies. But the question remains how to integrate these new nodes with the digital while addressing insurance and better valuation of their assets especially as the foundation of cities is crumbling under their demographic weight. Pollution is exacerbated by poor sanitation and drainage problems. But if smart means preserving the men and especially women that strive to turn their small ventures into medium enterprises with a smart insurance scheme, we may have allowed an additional service to the financial inclusion ecosystem.
We have the ability to limit the impact of climate change by re-imaging the interaction between the city and its people. We cannot wait for the collision between demography and urbanisation in Lagos, Dar, Abidjan, Accra, Johannesburg and other cities to act. Creating smart cities without the people inhabiting them is a recipe for rolling back progress and a lifetime of annual flooding. Carl Manlan is an economist, chief operating officer at the Ecobank Foundation and a 2016 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute