Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Addressing the needs of vulnerable groups in urban areas

David Satterthwaite
26 Apr 2017

For the billion urban dwellers living in informal settlements, there are many risks. Those who are more susceptible to these risks, or less able to cope, are termed vulnerable. But they are not vulnerable if the risks are removed. We need to focus more on removing the risks and less on endless lists of 'vulnerable groups', argues David Satterthwaite.

Raipur in Central India is developing into a major urban centre, but the infrastructure in the city's expanding informal settlements is poor (Photo: India Water Portal, Creative Commons via Flickr)

'Vulnerable', along with 'sustainable' and 'resilient', are three powerful words that appear so often in United Nations' recommendations and declarations – and in the literature on environment and development.

But are these now so commonly used that they are losing their power? Is the term 'vulnerable groups' used just as a convenient (but misleading) shorthand for showing concern for a long list of groups considered more at risk, without a need to ask why they are vulnerable and what needs to change?

An individual or household is said to be vulnerable to a risk (such as malaria-spreading mosquitoes, contaminated water or a flood) if they are more susceptible to being harmed or killed by it, or less able to cope or adapt (to lessen the risk). 

For instance, the lives of infants and young children are generally more at risk from malaria and contaminated water than the lives of adults. Groups more at risk to loss of their livelihood, income or assets – for instance to a flood – are also vulnerable.  

Is most of the world's population vulnerable?

It is now obligatory within UN declarations, discussions and recommendations to make special mention of 'vulnerable groups' or groups in vulnerable situations, and then often to list them – as in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UN's 'New Urban Agenda' (PDF)

The SDGs include many mentions of vulnerable groups – as in the need for attention to "the poorest and most vulnerable" and "people in vulnerable situations". Mention is also made of vulnerable countries. Vulnerable groups are said to include children, youth, persons with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS, older persons, indigenous peoples, refugees and internally displaced persons and migrants. 

Within the New Urban Agenda, the word vulnerable appears 15 times and those who are said to be in vulnerable situations include women, children and youth, older persons and persons with disabilities, migrants, indigenous peoples and local communities (paragraph 34) and communities that are most vulnerable to disasters (29).  

But this means that almost all the world's population is vulnerable. The only people who are not vulnerable according to this list are working age men that are not old, or migrants or disabled or indigenous or community members, or those in communities most vulnerable to disasters.

Going beyond lists to removing the risks

Rarely do the UN texts go beyond these lists to ask why these groups are vulnerable and what is needed to reduce or remove their vulnerability.

It is not so much vulnerable groups that are at issue, but the vulnerability of particular groups of the population to specific risks. To term all women or youth or migrants as vulnerable groups is to misrepresent their knowledge and their capacities to act – to cope with risk, to adapt to lessen risk or to remove risk.  

This is the second of three blogs drawn from the editorial in the April 2017 issue of the international journal, Environment & Urbanization. This issue is on 'Understanding the full spectrum of risk in urban areas' and it was prepared in partnership with Urban Africa Risk Knowledge (Urban ARK). The first blog was on 'Urban risks: where are the top five biggest blinds spots?' and the third was on 'Reducing risks in urban centres: think 'local, local, local'.

For infants and young children, much of their vulnerability to risk is to specific diseases. Provide them with a good quality healthcare that ensures they get all the needed vaccinations and rapid responses if ill or injured, and much of the vulnerability disappears. It disappears even more in good quality housing in neighbourhoods with safe play spaces. 

The vulnerability that many women face is so often related to the discrimination they face – within the household in tasks and food allocations, in labour markets, in access to land for housing and credit….

Water piped into each home that is safe, sufficient, regular and affordable, and good quality sanitation, together with an effective, easily-accessed healthcare system, enormously reduces the risks of premature death and ill health. There is no "vulnerable group" if the risk that they are vulnerable to is removed. 

In informal settlements that are vulnerable to serious flood risks every year, those living there are no longer vulnerable if investment in drainage and flood management remove the flood risk.  

But vulnerable groups that need support may also be mislabelled 'resilient'. Maria Kaika (in a paper in the April 2017 issue of Environment & Urbanization) notes how a focus on resilience can simply transfer responsibility from government to citizens. She gives the example of Tracie Washington, president of the Louisiana Justice Institute, who requested that policymakers and the media stop calling Hurricane Katrina and BP oil spill victims "resilient", pointing out that this can become an excuse by governments for not acting on removing the risks.

Local engagement to act on urban risk

So we need local knowledge on all the main risks, on who is most susceptible to each risk – and who lacks the capacity to cope and adapt.  And what is needed to reduce risk. So how do we get this? In ways that empower those most at risk?  

This is only possible if there is a local engagement with at risk groups. Interviews with flooded households in Niamey (Niger) in 2015 showed large differences in household capacity to cope and adapt.

A city-wide risk assessment in Karonga (Malawi) showed the range of risks facing the population with a need to consider who is vulnerable to each risk – whether these risks are from infectious or parasitic diseases, chemical pollutants or physical hazards (such as accidental fires, drowning or road vehicle accidents).

In urban areas, local government has many important roles and responsibilities in reducing the presence of hazards and people's exposure to them. A key step is ensuring provision of risk-reducing infrastructure and services to all neighbourhoods (such as safe, sufficient, affordable water, and good-quality sanitation, electricity, healthcare and waste collection). 

Upgrading informal settlements should reduce or remove many life- and health-threatening risks – as infrastructure and services are provided and as risk of eviction is much reduced. But ill-designed upgrading can increase vulnerability if it does not serve the needs and priorities of the residents.

David Satterthwaite (david.satterthwaite@iied.org) is a senior fellow in IIED's Human Settlements research group and visiting professor at the Development Planning Unit, University College London.

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