'We breathe climate change'

Esa Thar desert
We need a holistic approach to urban-rural dynamics, new working paper argues.


Ronaldo Golez, Mayor of Dumangas in the Philippines, is not a shy man but he is modest, especially  considering the challenges that he and his town of 70,000 are facing.

The Philippines and Dumangas would not normally be associated with desertification and drought, but throughout six months of the year the city experiences drought, and for the other six months, floods. Typhoons are also a common occurrence. 

How can he govern, adapt and prosper in this new climatic scenario with such optimism?  I spoke to him about urban and rural linkages during the Local and Regional Governments Day event at the recent United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification COP14. He said: “The key is land use. You see, we collaborate with local communities on land use maps and this is critical for developing a better relationship between urban and rural areas”. 

Unsustainable agriculture 

Dumangas is not alone in experiencing climatic change in a city due to the impact of changing weather patterns.

In Nepal for example, rainfall happens in March-April rather than in June-July, preventing the growth of crops and putting food security is at stake.

Ahmed Aziz Diallo, Mayor of Dori in Burkina Faso, tells us: “We experience climate change in our daily lives. We breathe climate change”. Deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices have increased desertification, land degradation and drought.

Young people left in the rural areas no longer have any opportunities; there's not enough access to education, healthcare and reasonable lifestyles. There are often visionary entrepreneurs that, due to a lack of any other opportunities become an easy target for terrorist organisations to recruit, not because they follow their ideology, but because of a lack of choices.

Some people end up migrating to cities, leaving behind the elderly and vulnerable, and exemplifying one of the biggest challenges of uncontrolled urbanisation: rural-urban migration.

Unofficial slums

There is much to say about the role of intermediate and secondary towns in holding the rural population away from the mega cities, but secondary infrastructure roads are also important. 

Rural-urban migration for better opportunities in cities is creating informal settlements on the urban outskirts. Gunda Prakash Rao, Mayor of Greater Warangal in India, shared his experiences of trying to assist one million citizens living in 93 slums in his city.

I asked Rao, How do you that?” he replied: “You see 93 slums are the slums officially recognised by the government. We have in fact 183 slums in total, the remaining 90 with 300,000 inhabitants are not recognised by the government”.

1.3 million inhabitants living in 183 slums in one city is something that I find difficult to comprehend. Legalisation of informal settlements might be a solution to this problem, as A. Mahendra and C. K. Seto have pointed out in the WRI Ross working paper. 

Peri-urban areas have become the focal point of rural – urban migration stories, acting as connectors between rural areas and cities and places where we can, hopefully, change a paradigm.

Informal settlements 

Informal settlements upgrading without the provision of jobs is no longer a viable option – it is also no longer a story about aesthetics and the provision of low-cost housing, as this is simply not sufficient.

Economic diversification, can ideally be achieved here by sustainable resources management and the circular economy.  The ILO expects global employment growth services and waste management to create up to 45 million jobs in total.

There is also a role for local and regional governments, as candidly explained by Emani Kumar, Deputy Secretary General of ICLEI, which has in its network 1,750 cities from over one hundred and twenty countries. The local and regional governments are implementors of national policies because they are closer to the local communities - decentralisation has a very important role to play.

Policy recommendations 

It was a great privilege to be engaged by the UNCCD to produce 'Rural – Urban Dynamics Policy Recommendations' as part of the Global Land Outlook Second Edition Advanced Working Paper.

Research on the policy took me back to 1992 and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Earth Summit and Agenda 21, which in fact points out solutions for the urban and rural continuum. Where did we go wrong in twenty-seven years of international dialogues and conceptual frameworks?

Perhaps the conceptual framework that separates cities and hinterlands needs to change. It might be that the fragmented approach to sustainability can impact on thinking and result in organisational silos, which in turn prevents a more uniform approach to city planning and governance. 

The paper offers a holistic review of relationships between rural and urban areas. It attempts to identify contemporary challenges that are encountered by both habitats and seeks to provide a variety of solutions to these challenges.

To effectively address the complexity of issues between rural areas and cities, the analysis is structured thematically around five 'capitals' - natural, human, social, manufactured and financial -  to enable the implementation of holistic approaches.  

Special focus is given to a possible way forward aimed at greater integration of rural and urban areas through sustainable land management to prevent productive land loss through the Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) Framework. 

Holistic approach

The paper identifies a diverse range of co-dependencies between rural and urban areas: ranging from food and water security, poverty alleviation, globalisation and migrations, governance and land regulations, affordable housing, land degradation and livelihood strategies in peri-urban areas, to sustainable resources management and circular economy opportunities.

This holistic approach may the answer to what Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of UNCCD, stated in his special address during Land and Regional Government Day: “We need to find a new development paradigm that is working for all,” using land as an agent for change.

His words on social inclusion were reiterated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who during the Opening Ceremony of the High Level Segment of COP14 concluded his speech with a suggestion that we need to change our thinking about a sustainable development paradigm and replace “me” with “we” in order to come up with a prosperous model of society. 

In the meantime, the mayors Dumangas, Dori and Warangal are doing extraordinary work in extraordinary circumstances, delivering on many Sustainable Development Goals, but above all on the SDG13 – Climate Action.

I have learnt from them that doing business as usual is no longer enough.  

This Author 

Dr Sandra Piesik is an architect and a researcher specialising in technology development and transfer. She is the founder of Habitat Coalition and a director of 3 ideas Ltd, UNCCD policy support consultant on Rural-Urban Dynamics, and a stakeholder in several UNFCCC and UN-HABITAT initiatives. She is the author of Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture, and the editor of HABITAT: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet, both published by Thames and Hudson. 

The Local and Regional Governments Day took place on 7 September 2019 during the UNCCD COP14 and was co-organised by the UNCCD Secretariat, ICLEI – Local and Regional Governments for Sustainability and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Government of India.

Image: Thar Desert, India © contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2017), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

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