Complex urban crises have become the new normal

Cities at war and in protracted crises was the focus of the Annual meeting of the UCLG Working Group on the territorial prevention and management of crises (28 November 2022), chaired by Mr. Sami Kanaan, Deputy Mayor of Geneva, and President of GCH. In his opening remarks, Mr. Kanaan, reaffirmed that “cities play an increasing role on the international stage, be it in the fight against climate change, dealing with massive migration fluxes or reducing social inequalities. Let’s provide them more space at the multilateral level”.

The GCH facilitated the session on cities at war. Mayors from Ukrainian cities affected by the conflict (cities of Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Novorodh Siverskyi, Slavutych) and representatives of the city of Saida in Lebanon shared their experiences, concerns, needs, as well as their hopes for the future. Other participants included Geneva-based international actors such as the ICRC, UNECE, IFRC and members of the Global Alliance on Urban Crises

While the topic of cities at war is currently the focus of much international attention, the issue is an old one. François Grünewald from Groupe URD recalled that “War used to be waged between cities in ancient Greek times. Then, war was waged for cities with armies trying to conquer these places concentrating power, wealth, culture. At another period, war was waged against cities. Now, in a context like Ukraine, war is waged in cities, by imposing a siege and/or completely destroying them”. Marianne Gasser then talked about the work of ICRC to alleviate human sufferings in urban contexts. She mentioned that “urban warfare has devastating consequences. Local governments are here before, during and after an armed conflict. They are often on the frontlines as first responders. It is thus important that humanitarian actors work with them and this should not compromise respect of the humanitarian principles”.

Ukrainian mayors shared their main challenges due to the armed conflict: providing drinking water, repairing the energy and heating infrastructure damaged due to shelling, rebuilding the schools and houses, organizing winter shelters where people can get heating and electricity to recharge their mobile phones. They indicated their needs (excavating equipment, generators, repairing materials, municipal vehicles, etc.) and also touched upon recovery and reconstruction plans for their cities. Emphasis was put on the fact that municipalities in Ukraine were among the first responders to the conflict, covering basic humanitarian needs close to the frontline and organizing the hosting of millions of internally displaced persons in areas further away from the fighting.

Despite this, municipalities are often overlooked by the international humanitarian system which has been set up to work mainly at the national level. Yet, dealing with complex urban crises has become the new normal and international humanitarian actors will need a radical shift in policy and practice to consistently engage with local authorities. Area-based approaches (as opposed to traditional sectoral approaches) are now gaining traction among humanitarians, but it remains complicated for the humanitarian actors to navigate complex urban systems and conversely, it is difficult for local authorities to understand the international humanitarian structures, mechanics and processes. Further challenges include the respect of humanitarian principles, the fact that local authorities change over time and that donors are not necessarily ready to provide direct funding to municipalities.

On the other hand, some participants recalled during the event that there are solidarity initiatives among cities and that Ukrainian cities had been provided with direct humanitarian and recovery assistance by other cities through various mechanisms. But the conversation around international humanitarian assistance and the role of local and regional governments needs to be pursued with all interested stakeholders so that municipalities can strengthen the resilience of their public services delivered to the population, even in times of war.

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