A greater understanding of the relationship between climate change, migration, cities and conflict is required in the global research community. Clemence Finaz, a Research Associate at International Alert, illustrates the complexities of a densely-populated city’s vulnerability to compound risks, including climate-related disaster and a high level of insecurity using the case example of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Last month, world leaders convened the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito, Ecuador. The conference aimed to assess accomplishments to date, renew political commitment for sustainable urban development, address poverty and identify and tackle new and emerging urban challenges over the period of the next 20 years.
To inform policy and programming in urban settings, the conference got to grips with several key areas underlying urban vulnerability, such as urbanisation, migration and refugees. Cities are today’s primary destination for most of the world’s international migrants, refugees, and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). In fact, the majority of these persons are thought to be living in urban areas as a result of conflict, or other drivers such as climate change, disasters, environmental degradation or insecurity.
A significant proportion of this urban expansion is occurring in fragile and conflict-affected areas, such as Haiti. The conference represented a timely opportunity to address the underresearched and oft-overlooked linkages between climate change, migration, urban resilience and fragility.
Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is a case in point to illustrate the complexities of a densely-populated city’s vulnerability to compound risks, including climate-related disaster and a high level of insecurity.
As one of the world’s poorest nations, Haiti has endured repeated natural disasters, health crises and political unrest since 2000. Last month, a major hurricane struck again (Hurricane Matthew), at a time when the country is still struggling to recover from the 2010 7.0 earthquake that claimed the lives of almost 220,000 people.
If Matthew caused havoc in the south of the country, Port-au-Prince, the capital, and biggest city in Haiti, has not been spared by the storm. The hazard-exposed city provides a good case example to dig deeper into factors of urban vulnerability.
Rural-urban migration in Haiti has been an ongoing phenomenon since the 1980s. This is largely due to environmental degradation, including soil erosion and population increase which has led to a reduction in the average space which can be cultivated in rural areas. The rural exodus has put increased pressure on space within the Port-au-Prince metropolitan region. The capital has expanded rapidly and is now populated by more than 2.3 million urban dwellers, representing a quarter of the total population. Hazard-prone, segregated and poorly maintained informal settlements, like Cité Soleil, have mushroomed. Unplanned and poorly managed urban growth has resulted in an inequitable, exclusionary and fragmented city, which ranks among the most violent in the world.
Climate-related extreme events frequently hit the Caribbean region as a whole. However, the impacts and disaster-related consequences are not felt the same in Haiti, where urban and rural populations are affected differently and inequitably within urban areas.
The poorest urban slums of Port-au-Prince have the highest levels of youth unemployment. Indeed, it has been estimated that almost 50% of urban Haitians are unemployed. The lack of access among large segments of the population to basic services, including health, education, and sanitation exacerbate disaster impacts, which rapidly turn into a health and food crisis emergencies. The cholera outbreak which followed the 2010 earthquake proved deadly, killing at least 9,100 people and affecting hundreds of thousands more. Again, in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, and in the wake of destroyed sanitation and water infrastructures, cholera is making a surge in Haiti. In addition, the hurricane severely impacted the food basket of the city (Gressier, 20 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince), affecting productivity and, therefore, food prices, which have risen in the capital.
In the past, food price increases of roughly 40% in a time period of less than a year resulted in violent protests in Haiti and the fall of the government after the parliament voted to out Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis. The concentration of extreme poverty in those areas, combined with high levels of income inequality, lack of access to basic services and repeated disasters reveal the failure of authorities to respond to the needs of the population, factors conducive to violence. Port-au-Prince remains a high-risk environment, tarnished by gang activities where political and economic conditions can rapidly turn into violent unrest.
The latest hurricane once again threatens to strain an already fragile and unstable political and economic situation. The country has been without an elected president since February. The presidential and legislative elections planned on 9 October were postponed after Hurricane Matthew, whilst the first rounds of voting, held in 2015, were cancelled following violence and a high level of fraudulent activity. This serves to illustrate how a disaster might have cascading impacts on political instability and fragility.
Repeated disasters only revealed the pre-existing institutional, governance and management failure of Haitian authorities. Urban governance is, therefore, a key battle to fight in order to build resilience in such contexts.
Climate change is expected to bring more significant challenges to fragile and conflict-affected countries. Emerging research indicates that we will see increased rural-urban movement within countries, more labour migration, and more frequent or longer lasting circular migration patterns. With more people moving to cities, and with many cities already facing increased vulnerability to climate and disaster risks as well experiencing existing social, economic and political fragility, these dynamics will be a major determinant of urban resilience.
There is therefore a need to better understand the relationship between climate change, migration, cities and conflict. This issue is a major lacuna within the global research community and, as such, overlooked in policy and programming. To promote sustainable urban development, it is necessary to build resilience to climate chance and to conflict.