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Towards more effective humanitarian response in urban areas

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This issue of Environment and Urbanization explores the growing field of humanitarian activity in urban areas of the global South. The papers showcase current and emerging thinking around urban humanitarian methods, from working in consortia (as in Eastern India) to area-based approaches.

While certain methods are proving more effective and participatory than old models, some aspects of urban post-disaster aid lack easy solutions. For instance, humanitarian organizations in urban Haiti face the difficult question of whether they should work with armed gangs, and risk losing moral credibility, or sidestep armed groups, and risk losing access to areas of need. Overall, the issue underlines the importance of working with community organizations and locally embedded groups. This is particularly important when aid is absent in post-conflict situations (as in Somaliland), or when the urgency of a disaster means that volunteers emerge spontaneously in the first hours and days following the event. However, the papers also show that the situations requiring humanitarian response are not limited to the immediate aftermath of an earthquake or flood.

There are large challenges in the longer-term effort of rebuilding communities, reducing conflict, strengthening livelihoods for affected people (such as different groups of migrants to Kampala), and enhancing post-disaster governance (such as in Nepal following the 2010 earthquake). Yet these areas also provide powerful opportunities to build back better, and not just in a physical sense.

Building on this broader understanding of disaster and appropriate response, this issue includes two papers on extreme weather in cities. The paper on urban risk traps in Lima calls for greater attention to the frequent small-scale disasters that affect residents more than mega-disasters. And the paper on flash flooding in remote Egyptian towns shows how risks from extreme weather are compounded by insufficient attention to urban planning.

In Feedback, four papers explore water and sanitation: at the policy level in two Kenyan cities; at the infrastructural level when it comes to alternative sewerage systems in Manila; in anthropological and public health terms, via interpretations of risk among low-income residents of Lilongwe; and in terms of citizen power for sanitation provision, as grassroots organizing in one Dar es Salaam settlement illustrates. The remaining two papers explore the complications of informal settlement upgrading in two cities in sub-Saharan Africa. In Nairobi, enumerations to make upgrading decisions can be highly contested and bound by power relations. And in one Lusaka settlement, upgrading has had largely positive, but mixed, effects on people working in home-based enterprises.

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