Issue 35 - Article 2

The African Urban Risk Analysis Network (AURAN)

November 21, 2006
David Satterthwaite, International Institute for Environment and Development

Many disasters in Africa take place in urban areas, affecting millions of people each year. There is therefore an increasing need to understand how the risks from potential disasters develop in urban contexts, and to identify how locally owned processes can address these risks. To do this, the African Urban Risk Analysis Network (AURAN) has been formed by six African research institutions, with support from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and ProVention. Work programmes are under way in Accra, Algiers, Cape Town, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi and Saint Louis (Senegal) to identify:

  • the main disaster risks and who is most vulnerable to them;
  • the processes that lead to the accumulation of these risks, and how these are related to environmental hazards; and
  • what local changes can reduce these risks, particularly through actions that might be taken by local governments, community organisations, development and disaster-oriented NGOs and other relevant agencies.

AURAN’s overall goal is to ensure that international agencies, governments and civil society develop a better understanding of disaster risks in urban areas, and the actions that are required to reduce them. The aim is both to encourage the integration of disaster risk reduction into conventional urban development planning and urban governance, and to support organisations that normally respond to disasters in expanding their role, especially in reducing the vulnerability of those people and settlements most at risk from disasters.

The challenges

AURAN has faced two challenges in getting this work going. The first is the perception among many governments and international agencies that poverty and disasters in Africa are primarily rural problems. Yet more than 350 million people in Africa live in urban centres – some two-fifths of the continent’s population. The scale of urban poverty is also much greater than is generally recognised – as can be seen by the high proportion of the urban population living below the poverty line in most nations, and high infant and child mortality rates among urban populations. In most urban centres in Africa, much of the population lives in settlements lacking the most basic infrastructure, including piped water, sanitation and drainage and all-weather roads. A significant proportion of Africa’s urban population is concentrated on coasts, and as such is particularly at risk from storms and sea-level rises.

The second challenge is the perception that disaster risk is best reduced by well-prepared responses to the disaster, once it occurs. In urban areas in particular, there is often huge scope for reducing disaster risk by actions and investment prior to the event. For instance, good drainage systems greatly reduce flood risk; good land-use management programmes limit the extent of urban development on land sites at high risk from landslides, earthquakes or floods. Basic investment in roads and firebreaks can greatly reduce risks from fires, especially in low-income areas where levels of risk are high because of high population densities, the use of flammable materials in house-building and the widespread use of open fires and kerosene stoves or lights. Relatively simple measures incorporated into buildings can reduce risk of collapse, in earthquake-prone areas. However, the agencies responsible for disaster response often have few contacts with the local government bodies that can take action to reduce risks like these.

Urban risks

By concentrating in one place people, enterprises and their waste – and, increasingly, motor vehicles – cities are often hazardous places in which to live and work. This is especially the case in cities where much of the low-income population settles on hazardous sites because no other land is available to them – and they also lack the means to take measures that can reduce the risks they face. Urban contexts generally increase the risk of what Allan Lavell, from the Network for the Social Study of Disaster Prevention in Latin America-LA RED, has called ‘concatenated hazards’, where a primary hazard leads to a secondary one (e.g. floods creating water-supply contamination).

The many ways in which urban development can increase people’s vulnerability to disasters (i.e. the potential to be killed, injured or otherwise negatively affected) include:

  • Cities developing or expanding onto sites at risk from floods, landslides or earthquakes (usually particular groups, rather than the whole city, are at risk).
  • Cities as concentrations of activities with disaster potential – industrial accidents, transport accidents, fires or epidemics (particular groups are most at risk).
  • Patterns of urban form and buildings that increase scales and levels of risk from floods, landslides, earthquakes, fires, transport accidents or industrial accidents (particular groups are at risk).
  • The role of ‘bad’ or ‘weak’ and ‘under-resourced’ local governments in causing or exacerbating risks from floods, landslides, earthquakes, fires, transport accidents and industrial accidents.
  • Changes in the region around cities, which cause or exacerbate risks from floods (e.g. poor watershed management – often a particular problem for city governments as the watershed lies outside their jurisdiction).
  • Disaster risks from a sudden movement of people to a city (in response to war or famine, for example).

The risk continuum

When illness, injury, premature death and loss of property occur, these can be classified within a continuum from ‘everyday’ risks to ‘small’ and ‘large’ disasters, depending on the scale of the loss (and generally the frequency of the event). Disaster specialists generally focus on part of this continuum, ignoring non-disaster events (and often small disasters). This means that they do not see the links between non-disaster events and disasters, or the risk accumulation processes that are common in urban areas, and which usually increase disaster and non-disaster risks. Meanwhile, urban specialists often focus on non-disaster risk. While it is true that, in most of urban Africa, non-disaster risk contributes far more to health burdens and to poverty than disasters, this focus means that specialists miss the potential links between risk reduction for everyday hazards and small and large disasters.

Opportunities for risk reduction

Because people and enterprises are concentrated in urban areas, there are economies of scale to be had with many of the measures that reduce risks from most disasters – for instance in the per capita cost of measures to improve watershed management or drainage, reducing the scale of floods, and to respond rapidly and effectively when a disaster is imminent or happens. There is generally a greater capacity among city-dwellers to help pay for such measures, if they are made aware of the risks and all efforts are made to keep down costs.

Urban governments should be in the risk reduction business. They should have key roles as risk reducers:

  • They provide infrastructure and services (some perhaps is contracted to private enterprises or NGOs).
  • They guide where development takes place – for instance influencing where urban settlements develop and where they do not, and what provision they have to avoid floods or fires.
  • They regulate hazardous activities that can cause disasters (industries, transport accidents).
  • They have an influence on land availability (land use regulations, zoning, bureaucratic procedures for buying or obtaining land, and what can be built on it; the quality of land use management influences the proportion of poorer groups having to live on hazardous/disaster-prone sites).
  • They encourage/support household/community action that reduces risk (for instance better-quality housing, safer sites and good infrastructure).
  • They provide ‘law and order’, which should also act to protect the poor from risk.

AURAN’s work to date

The six partner institutions that form the core of AURAN are currently completing work programmes in six cities. The work includes documenting the methods used and the many partners involved in the work. In each city, this has included consultations with the inhabitants of a range of illegal and informal settlements, to ensure that the recommendations coming out of this work address the needs of the most vulnerable groups.

The Disaster Mitigation for Sustainable Livelihoods Programme (DiMP) at the University of Cape Town is developing a disaster risk reduction strategy for Cape Town, with a particular interest in reducing risks from fires. This is supporting the city’s informal settlement upgrading programme. DiMP is also documenting the methods used – especially a very detailed database on the kinds and spatial locations of accidental fires – and offering advice to other institutions on how these methods might be applied in other locations.

The Faculty of Civil Engineering at the University of Science and Technology in Algiers has completed an assessment of the seismic vulnerability of buildings in Algiers, and has identified measures to reduce vulnerability to earthquakes, including protecting the un-reinforced masonry structures that make up a major portion of Algiers’ building stock.

The University of Accra in Ghana is developing a disaster risk reduction programme for the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area, supported by an analysis of trends in environmental hazards (ranging from everyday, small incidents to disasters), a database that maps these incidents and an analysis of risk accumulation processes, to serve as an early warning system.

ENDA-Tiers Monde (Environment and Development-Third World) in Senegal undertook a careful analysis of who is at risk of flooding in Saint Louis (Senegal), and why – and also what factors contribute to the accumulation of flood risk. From this, an action plan and assistance strategy are being developed in conjunction with community groups and other stakeholders, to reduce the risk of flooding and to address communities’ vulnerability to floods.

The Disaster Management Research Unit at Kenyatta University (Kenya) has documented the scale of serious injury and accidental death caused by road traffic in selected Kenyan urban centres (where accidental deaths per vehicle are 30 times higher than in most European cities). The aim is to identify the processes that increase the risks of large and small-scale road traffic accidents, and to recommend measures to reduce these risks.

The University College of Lands and Architectural Studies in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) has completed the identification of disaster risks and the development of risk reduction programmes in three informal settlements in the city. These are serving as examples of what can be done on a much larger scale.

Future plans

As the findings from the projects completed to date are disseminated, AURAN hopes to encourage many other city teams to join in this work. The findings from this work will form the basis for a large information dissemination programme, including local workshops and city-to-city exchanges. The AURAN website contains more details of current work and future plans. AURAN has already organised a major conference to report on its preliminary findings, which was held in Cape Town in early 2006. For further details, see

David Satterthwaite is Senior Fellow, Human Settlements Group, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). IIED has been working with ProVention and UNDP to support the setting up of AURAN. His email address is:


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