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DISASTER MANAGEMENT

Urban planning policies key in averting calamities

In Summary

• Disasters continue to eat into developmental gains from economic growth in Kenya, especially in urban areas.

• It is estimated that 90 per cent of Kenya’s urban population is highly vulnerable to disaster-related mortality.

Aerial view of overpopulated Eastlands, Nairobi. The World Bank has entered into a partnership with the Nairobi County government to develop guidelines that will transform Eastlands region into a sustainable city
Aerial view of overpopulated Eastlands, Nairobi. The World Bank has entered into a partnership with the Nairobi County government to develop guidelines that will transform Eastlands region into a sustainable city
Image: COURTESY

The world population stands at seven billion, according to the UN Habitant report of 2016.

The report also indicates Africa’s population is 1.2 billion.

This is a clear signal that urbanisation is rapidly growing and with 70 per cent of the world population living in cities and urban areas, it’s time to consider the UN Habitant City and Urbanisation policies that control development.

This is because disasters continue to eat into developmental gains from economic growth in Kenya, especially in urban areas. It is estimated that 90 per cent of Kenya’s urban population is highly vulnerable to disaster-related mortality.

Exposure to disaster can be attributed to poverty, lack of early warning systems, poor risk governance and lack of awareness among Kenyans on the need to stay away from areas such as riparian land, wetlands and shorelines.

Over the years, Kenya has had a major crisis of uncontrolled land use, which has led to sprawling of unplanned urban areas. The result has been settlements and slums without prerequisite infrastructure and services to mitigate disasters.

Earlier this year, the country experienced heavy rains that wreaked havoc in various parts. This always recurs.

The Great Rift Valley, which is approximately 5,000km-long, stretching from Lebanon to Mozambique follows a fault line hence prone to earthquakes. Surprisingly, the valley is facing rapid urbanisation with some of the fastest growing cities in the continent on it.

Despite efforts by the government, infrastructural developers have chosen to ignore the Urban and City planning policies that guide development. Buildings are coming up without consideration of storm water management.

Consequently, individual land owners are changing the use of their land from agricultural to urbanisation without proper planning to address disaster-related issues. It is worth noting that, clearing of agricultural land for housing development (replacement of green with concrete) increases surface run off. Flooding is thus likely to occur, if mitigation measures are not considered.

We recently witnessed the demolition of residential areas in Kariobangi area, Nairobi. Few selfish individuals decided to construct residential houses in what was meant to be a riparian land. Surprisingly, these riparian reserves are zoned for conservation in the city/urban plans. Lack of compliance to these plans has greatly compromised sustainable neighbourhoods and livelihoods.

Such selfish actions have led to loss of lives and properties, which does not only affect the law breakers but also innocent Kenyans within proximity of such areas. Under the Ministry of Environment, we have about nine laws to protect riparian lands which clearly define what a riparian land is.

The National Spatial Plan (2015-2045) and the National Land Use Policy give strategies to avert disasters by promoting sustainable development across the country. Implementation and enforcement is, however, a concern.

The situation is the same all over the country, ranging from riparian land grabbing (like areas around Lake Victoria and beach areas of the Indian Ocean) to encroachment into wetlands across the country.

This has raised questions on the role of urban planners in making cities conducive with affordable and commensurate services and facilities for its population.

The policymakers and political leaders, on the other hand, have not lived to their expectations of formulating policies and prioritising infrastructural development that is friendly to the environment.

City and Urban planning policy is a vital tool in addressing calamities such as flooding, which is associated with encroachment of wetlands and shorelines and conversion of agricultural land for development without planning considerations.

Despite having put policies and laws in place, poor planning is still evident. Implementation and enforcement of these is key especially at the County Government level where development control takes place.

So what is the solution?

Globally, leaders need to fully implement the UN Habitant policy framework under the ‘Plan of Action for Implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 in Africa.

The policy aims at addressing the need for a paradigm shift from managing urbanisation to better management of rural areas to address natural calamities. It calls for provision of infrastructure and social services in rural areas to curb rural-urban migration.

There is need to align our local policies and laws with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals specifically the eleventh, which seeks to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. This can be blended into the New Urban Agenda, adopted by the international community, which sets a global standard for sustainable urban development.

The country has a new planning law — Physical and Land Use Planning Act, 2019 — which has enumerated the requirements for development control. In addition, The Urban Areas and Cities Act, 2011 requires every urban area to prepare an Integrated Development Plan that shall be the basis for development control.

In addition, EMCA of 1999 and its subsequent regulations has guided on measures to be adopted by authorities and individuals to avert disasters. Is it that our leaders are not aware of these legal and policy provisions? Then sensitisation is required to enlighten the community at large.

We don’t lack good planners but implementation and enforcement of the policies is the gap that needs to be filled. All we want is a quick fix for the few at the expense of many. For instance, all projects in national and county levels are designed at the expense of our nature and when calamities strike reactive measures are employed. Lets us be a proactive as opposed to reactive society.

This kind of tendencies has led to disconnect between the technically correct projects and politically correct projects. To strike a balance between the two, planners should be allowed to apply their skills in ensuring wider benefits to all.

The solution to urban disasters lies in three areas — policies and laws (sensitisation, implementation and enforcement), political good will and good practices at individual and society level.

Dr John Chumo is the Committee secretary, National Environmental Complaints Committee