To keep our cities from crum­bling, let’s create smart slums

The East African - - OPINION -

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

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