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​Tackling climate change, city by city: urban resilience in Nigeria and Tanzania

Naturals disasters have been growing in frequency and strength due to climate change. How do cities in developing countries prepare for some inevitable changes in the upcoming decades? Our three grantees, Lasse Wamsler, Sven Johannesen and Sune Gudmundsson, visited Nigeria and Tanzania to find out how these cities are tackling climate change. Their project Building Urban Resilience was just released by Danish newspaper Politiken and Belgian magazine Mo*. Now Sven and Sune share their insights with us.

In your story pitch you described resilience as ‘a new, developmental buzzword’. What does urban resilience actually mean to you?

Sven: ‘To us, urban resilience describes a way of planning cities that are resilient from an ecological and a social perspective. It refers to proper infrastructures, such as roads, electricity, trash collection, sewage systems, or drains. But these infrastructures should also benefit all groups of society. A true resilient city should not be just for the privileged.

One of the main purposes of this project was to look deeper into the concept of resilience, which is used in various fields of science, from psychology to urban planning. In particular, we wanted to find out how urban resilience manifests itself in the slums of big African cities, where a great part of the world’s poor people are living.’

Why did you choose to model your project on Dar es Salaam and Lagos?

Sven: ‘We would have loved to explore the situation of each single country on this huge continent, but this was, of course, impossible. We ended up selecting a place on the West Coast, Lagos in Nigeria, and another one on the East Coast, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Both are coastal cities that have to cope with the rise of sea levels and the risk of floods during rainy seasons. At the same time, they have been experiencing fast population growth in the past years. This trend is supposed to continue in the future, so we wondered how they are dealing with their expansion.’

What are the biggest differences in the way these cities deal with climate change?

Sven: ‘We could see that both cities are coping with climate change in really different ways. In Nigeria, for instance, this fight is mostly funded by the private sector. Take Eko Atlantic City in Lagos. This is an entire new, privately funded city. Tanzania, on the other hand, has traditionally been receiving lot of international aid. Many of the resilience projects launched there are funded by donors coming from the Western world.’

Eko Atlantic City is planned to function as the new financial centre of Nigeria upon completion. In your story you explained that the construction of this new metropolis can end up generating a ‘climate apartheid’. Why do think that this can happen?

Sven: ‘Many people think that Eko Atlantic City will bring progress and that it will become the Manhattan of Africa. Of course, the new city will attract many companies and, as a consequence, many new jobs will be created. The big question is: will all these investments benefit ordinary Nigerians? After our own research I am not personally convinced about that. It is still not clear if the project will be more than just a small city for the very rich.’

Dar Ramani Huria is an example of a donor-funded project in Tanzania. Can you explain a bit more about this initiative?

Sune: ‘Dar Ramani Huria is a community mapping for flood resilience in slums of Dar es Salaam. It is funded by the World Bank, and the organisation Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team is leading the project on the ground. They are using GPS and drones to record the exact areas at risk of flooding, for example in Tandale, one of the slums in Dar es Salaam. The slum has been developed without a specific urban plan and—along with many other slums in Dar es Salaam—it has never been mapped properly. University students and local residents are also helping with the mapping and are an essential part of the process. The locals residents have learned how to use GPS, and thanks to them, the public can get precise coordinates. It is brilliant.’

What is the importance of mapping these areas?

Sune: ‘Once you visit these areas you suddenly realise the effects of a lack of infrastructure. Everything is so chaotic. The situation becomes even worse when it rains. There are no proper drainage systems and natural channels for the discharge of rainwater are often clogged by waste because of insufficient waste management. From a climate change perspective, maps can help in pointing out where to start fixing problems. With the maps it is possible to predict where water goes if it rains, because you have an idea of the topography of an area. This means that people can be evacuated before a flood occurs. Mapping also gives people an idea of where not to build your house, and it provides the authorities with the tools to develop better urban planning’.

You looked into the Makoko Floating School, just a few kilometres away from Eko Atlantic City. How are Nigerians responding to this project?

Sune: ‘The School is located in the Lagos Lagoon in Makoko. Some call the fishing community the "Venice of Slums.” It is a floating structure that can be visited by boat. The project shows how the community is learning to take the maximum advantage of the natural resources they have. We think that this is the right way to adapt to climate change when you live on water and are very poor like the dwellers of Makoko. People in Makoko know that they might not live in a perfect community, but they can still slowly improve the way things are done in order to be more resilient.’

Is there an open information system regarding upgrades like Eko Atlantic City and Makoko Floating School? Are standard citizens informed about their governments’ plans to reinforce their urban resilience?

Sven: ‘Climate change is a slow motion disaster, but it is even worse in Nigeria and Tanzania, where other problems such as poverty and the huge absence of infrastructures are rampant. Unfortunately, there is a lack of communication between the authorities and the population altogether. One of the reasons is a lack of resources. Besides that, I think the whole problem of climate change is pushed down on the agenda, due to the fact that people are struggling daily to find something to eat, a place to stay, or electricity. These are basic problems that take the focus away from the seemingly abstract ones.’

What are the challenges that Africa will face in the following years when it comes to building urban resilience, based on the findings of your two case studies?

Sven: ‘Organisation is the main challenge. It is very difficult for the governments to cope with disorganisation and climate change together.’

Sune: ‘The fast growth cannot be ignored either, the population growth is rising and many people move to the city every day. It is challenging for the urban planners to keep up with the pace. The authorities of both Lagos and Dar es Salaam are aware about the urgency to find a solution to these problems, but it is not easy to find the funds and the support needed, we were told.”

How was the experience of reporting from Nigeria and Tanzania?

Sven: ‘We researched this topic in-depth, but it was still a challenging experience. We are three Europeans trying to understand such different countries. We wanted to tell stories properly without making any mistakes. Luckily we received a lot of help from local fixers. They always tried to make us understand the situation and act as translators for us when needed.’

What were the biggest difficulties you encountered as a reporter by traveling to these countries?

Sune: ‘In the case of Nigeria, it was quite difficult to obtain the right visa. It took many e-mails and a personal conversation with the ambassador of Nigeria in Sweden to receive the media license. We never were asked to show this document once there, but we knew we could get in trouble if we did not have it. It was not the same with Tanzania, we talked to some journalists beforehand and they all said it was not necessary to have a media license.’

Your story will be published in Denmark, Norway, Spain, Belgium and Al Jazeera English. How did you approach international media outlets?

Sven: ‘E-mails, e-mails and more e-mails. We were really persistent, and finally we made it.’

How is Building Urban Resilience different from the usual reporting projects that can be found in Danish media?

Sven: ‘It is unique because of the way it is presented and the type of content it covers. It is unusual that journalists have the opportunity to report from the field for five weeks. It is also special to illustrate a report with a lot of graphic material. With the integrated video footage, we are hoping to keep the audience engaged with the topic. We just got a message from a school teacher on the Faroe Islands who told us that he will use our project for his classes. He really liked the mix of written and audiovisual material. We believe that if our project can be relevant for school kids on a small island in the Atlantic Ocean, then we must have done something right.’

Sune: ‘These types of projects are really different to what mainstream media usually show, that is why we are really pleased with this grant. It is important to support these kinds of independent projects because otherwise nobody could work on them.’

Andrea Abellán is an intern at the EJC headquarters in Maastricht. She studied journalism in Spain and Italy and has extensive working experience abroad. She is now finishing her Master in New Media and Digital Culture at Utrecht University.

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