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World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day 2010: urbanization

06-05-2010 Feature

Urban dwellers already make up half the world's population and their number is set to rise rapidly over the next decades. For many people, moving to the city means a better job and better services. But for millions, city life means violence, poverty, pollution and vulnerability. An estimated one billion people live in slums or other sub-standard housing.



  ©ICRC / C. von Toggenburg / V-P-CO-E-00856    
   Urban living  

Urban centres are home to half the world's population. These centres are engines of prosperity, cultural expression, diversity, and economic growth but they are also subject to pollution, violence, crime, unhygienic and crowded environments, poverty, social exclusion and increasing vulnerability.

4.9 billion people are expected to be living in urban environments by 2030 – over 60 per cent of the world population (UN-HABITAT).

Most of the world’s largest cities are in low- and middle-income nations.

Two thirds of the world’s 10.5 million refugees live in towns and cities. (UNHCR)

Urbanization – the main issues 
  • Disasters

  • Health and social services

  • Urban violence

  • Migration and displacement


 Urban populations at risk  

  • 1,000,000,000 people live in poor-quality, overcrowded housing, in slums or informal settlements. These people are at higher risk of diseases such as HIV or tuberculosis. The world’s slum population may rise to almost 1.5 billion by 2020. (UN-HABITAT)

  • 680,000,000 urban dwellers lack adequate water supplies. (UN-HABITAT)

  • 850,000,000 urban dwellers lack toilets or latrines of a quality that would reduce health risks. (UN-HABITAT)

  • Asia has the highest exposure to storm-surge-induced flooding. Of the 20 cities with large populations and the highest exposure in 2005 to sea-level rise and storm surge, half are in low and middle-income nations in Asia. (OECD)

  • Slum communities often develop in areas at risk, i.e. areas where natural disasters such as flooding are more likely. Often, the people who live there do not own the land on which their homes stand.

  • Organized crime presents one of the greatest challenges to reducing urban vulnerability. Most perpetrators and victims of urban violence are young men aged between 15 and 25. (UN HABITAT / WHO)

  • Armed conflict has a direct effect on many cities and heavily urbanized areas such as Mogadishu, Baghdad, Gaza and Goma (Democratic Republic of Congo).




  ©ICRC / O. Miltcheva / V-P-HT-E-00623    
Desprey, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Camp for internally displaced persons. Following the 12 January earthquake, The ICRC and the Haitian Red Cross distributed enough food for two months.    
Disaster: risk reduction, shelter and climate change 

 Risk reduction  

Making cities safer is the responsibility of local authorities and governments. Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as official auxiliaries to their governments in humanitarian matters, can play a vital role in pushing for sustainable risk-reduction measures.

Disaster preparedness measures save lives. These measures include pre-positioning relief goods, relief coordination, search and rescue, first aid, evacuation procedures, evaluations, warning drills and simulation exercises.

Effective early action depends on early warnings reaching people in a timely and understandable manner and effective response depends largely on everyone being well prepared.


Shelter assistance includes good urban planning, involving the community, and taking into consideration the environmental, social, economic and technical aspects of settlement reconstruction.

Shelter prioriti es go beyond saving lives and providing protection from the climate – they also include ensuring privacy, dignity, personal safety and the provision of adequate water and sanitation systems.

Usually, shelter is a family's main asset. Through its action prior to disaster, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement ensures that this asset is preserved in times of emergency.

 Climate change  

The number of people affected by climate-related natural disasters will increase to 375 million a year by 2015. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement encourages local authorities and governments to remember the needs of the most vulnerable members of society in responding to these changing conditions.

Further reading 
  Haiti: focus on emergency and mid-term shelter  

  Indonesia: five years of 'building back better'  



  ©ICRC / P. Santos / V-P-BR-E-00089    
  Vigário Geral, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This educational campaign on tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases reached 6,000 of the most vulnerable people in Rio de Janeiro's favelas.    
Health and social services 

 Public health  

The urban poor suffer disproportionately from disease. More than one billion people – a third of the urban population – live in urban slums. People living in these communities are at higher risk of both chronic disease and communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis and HIV.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement advocates for equitable access to health care for all vulnerable people, particularly those living in overcrowded, unhealthy slum communities.

Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers play a vital role in reaching the community. But more help is needed in tackling such global health challenges as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, and in reaching marginalized populations in urban settings such as the homeless, prostitutes, injecting drug users and migrants.

As cities grow, so does the threat of TB – a deadly disease that spreads through the air and thrives in poor, overcrowded communities.

 Water and sanitation  

Today, almost one billion people have no access to a clean water supply, and over two billion have no access to adequate sanitation. Although the majority of needs are in rural settings, rising urban populations are putting an ever greater strain on public services, causing tensions within communities and, in some cases, armed violence. This continuing trend makes it even more difficult to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals for water and sanitation.

Despite successes in providing access to clean water in urban settings, sanitation remains a major problem. One in five city dwellers has no access to improved sanitation – more than 600 million people.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is among the leading humanitarian providers of water, habitat and sanitation services. Often working with National Societies, the ICRC's water and habitat services last year benefited some 13.6 million people in 35 countries affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence. Many of the beneficiaries live in cities such as Herat (Afghanistan); Baghdad; Rafah and Khan Younis (Gaza Strip), Port-au-Prince and Goma (Democratic Republic of Congo).

 First aid  

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement advocates that first-aid training be accessible to all. In towns and cities, particularly in slum communities, we must ensure that vulnerable people can take training in how to prevent injury and save lives, regardless of their ability to pay.

 Road safety  

Deaths and injuries due to road accidents are preventable – better road safety saves lives and livelihoods and helps build safer communities. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement supports urgent, global action to address this major public health problem.

Further reading 
  Sri Lanka: schoolchildren lead the way on healthier habits  

  Haiti: bringing water and restoring dignity to the elderly  

  Philippines: saving lives in Antipolo City Jail  

  The ICRC's water and habitat programmes  



  ©ICRC / C. von Toggenburg / V-P-CO-E-00843    
  Ciudad Bolívar, Bogotá, Colombia. Ciudad Bolívar is a particularly poor area, where many families regularly arrive from the rural areas of Colombia affected by the armed conflict. The ICRC visits these familes to provide aid and assistance.    
Urban violence 

Violence in urban areas poses a serious challenge for vulnerable people. Problems are often exacerbated by factors such as poverty, economic inequality, unemployment, social exclusion and marginalization.

As the world grows increasingly urban, violence in many cities is reaching unprecedented proportions. Chronic violence makes daily life in some places almost like living in a war zone. With rapid urbanization, the context for violence is changing, creating new challenges for those giving aid and working to prevent conflict.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement advocates for more action by governments and local authorities to address the challenges posed by urban violence, in particular the availability of small arms and other weapons.

Through their auxiliary role, National Societies can help governments prevent and mitigate violence by providing education and employment opportunities, offering alternatives to armed violence.

Promoting social inclusion and a culture of non-violence and peace is one of the strategic priorities of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Towns and cit ies are particularly important in this respect. Through the work of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies promotes intercultural dialogue and harmony within and between communities.

While the ICRC mainly operates in armed conflicts, it also has a mandate to act in what are termed “other situations of violence,” situations that also arise in cities. Often working closely with National Societies, it can respond when and where its international profile, experience, independence and neutrality are of especial value to people made vulnerable by violence in cities. It is not the reasons for this violence but rather its humanitarian impact that justifies ICRC involvement.

Further reading 
  Urban violence: war by any other name  

  Urban violence: goals for peace  

  Gaza: the outlook remains bleak  

  Armed violence and humanitarian action in urban areas  

  United against dengue: the Red Cross and the residents of Rio join forces to prevent the disease  

Migration & displacement


  ©ICRC / P. Fichard / V-P-PK-E-00908    
  Wari 1 Camp, District of Dir, Pakistan. This camp was set up in a school, like many other camps in Dir. The IDPs lived in the school buildings and in tents in the courtyard.    
Migration & displacement 

Vulnerable migrants must receive help, whoever they are, wherever they are and irrespective of their legal status. Vulnerability remains the basic criterion that the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies apply in deciding whom to help, and the mission of the National Societies is to mitigate the unacceptable human toll of migration.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that there are 214 million international migrants worldwide. According to the UNHCR, two thirds of the world's 10.5 million refugees live in towns and cities.

In their search for a better life, tens of thousands of people become victims of abuse, extortion, or trafficking, often in urban settings. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement advocates for better protection for migrants, regardless of legal status.

In December 2008, an estimated 26 million people were living as " internally displaced persons " (IDPs) because of armed conflict and other situations of violence. Many of them live in cities, often left to their own devices as they are far away from the communities and support networks they have traditionally relied on. The Movement policy on internal displacement, adopted at the 200 9 Council of Delegates, commits the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to take steps to prevent displacement and to support IDPs and the communities that host them.

Further reading 
  Fleeing war and relocating to the urban fringe – issues and actors: the cases of Khartoum and Bogotá