Urbanisation, youth bulge and climate change: Understanding connected drivers of fragility in urban settings

1. Compound risks of climate change and youth bulge can threaten sustainable urban development 

The UN Habitat Conference, which takes place every 20 years, is the key negotiation process that mandates the UN’s work on planning the development of cities and human settlements. The Habitat III Summit in Quito set the New Urban Agenda for the next two decades, and provided the space for the international community to discuss issues and opportunities posed by current trends in urbanisation.

Today, more than half of the world’s population inhabits urban areas, and, by the year 2050, this figure is set to rise to almost 70%. Urbanisation has unfolded at an almost uncontrolled pace in some regions, particularly Africa and Asia, with some undesired consequences. Cities have become a focal point of the greatest challenges we face, and are, therefore, critical in harnessing the Sustainable Development Goals. Cities are a place of growth, innovation, social and economic development, but at the same time a place where extreme poverty and violence increasingly collides. The increasing pressure on cities (growing inequalities and segregation, environmental degradation, climate change, disasters, urban migration) render them increasingly fragile, prone to risk accumulation and crisis exposure, threatening the well-being of urban dwellers.

When it comes to addressing and capitalising on new emerging urban challenges, one cannot overlook how major trends affecting cities such as youth population growth and climate change might interact and negatively affect the security environment, multiplying risks in regions already vulnerable to poor governance and social and political instability. A recent report commissioned by UNICEF-UK titled “Climate change, violence and young people” is exploring this threat.

Large youth populations can provide a boost for growth and development. However, the report stresses that when large youth cohorts evolve in a context lacking economic opportunities, inadequate governance, and poor services provision, there is also a strong link between large youth bulge and conflict risk.

This is particularly the case in expanding African cities and settlements where a high demand for key services (water, health, shelter, employment) is confronted with economic stagnation, underinvestment, poor governance and fragile institutions, producing conditions for violence and social unrest. If states remain unresponsive to the needs of young people and are perceived to be unable or unwilling to create the conditions for equal opportunities, this can contribute to discontent and civil violence. In certain conditions, it can increase the risk of larger-scale unrest or conflict, as demonstrated by recent developments in Egypt and Kenya.

2. A closer look at Egypt and Kenya

The UNICEF-UK report identified Sub-Saharan Africa as the region at the highest risk of climate- and youth-related security stressors. Egypt and Kenya are interesting case studies for illustrating how state fragility, climate vulnerability and youth bulges overlap.

In Egypt, the current population of over 83 million is projected to almost double to 140 million by the year 2050. 54% of the population are currently under 24 and therefore in need of jobs. There is free higher education, but few opportunities to capitalize on it for most young people, as there are simply not enough high paying positions. The unrest which emanated from Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2010-11 was, in part, triggered by demographic stressors such as overcrowding and underservicing of urban centres. Most participants in the demonstrations were young, un- or underemployed, and disaffected with the status quo. Alongside a lack of political voice and sense of relative deprivation amongst many young people, this creates a high risk of political instability. Climate impacts are likely to complicate economic growth and increase pressure on many livelihoods, making the situation worse for young people.

In Kenya, the urban youth were indeed major actors in the looting, rioting, and violence during the political unrest in 2007/2008. These events unfolded against a background of high unemployment, widespread poverty, a slow-down in economic growth relative to the rest of the East African region and the detrimental impacts of climate change, which have negatively impacted upon food production and livelihoods.

With a population that is projected to more than double to 97 million by 2050, Kenya is facing a youth bulge. The large proportion of young people presents social, environmental and economic challenges, as well as opportunities. 42% of the population is under 15 and young people represent 64% of the country’s unemployed.  Unemployment rates in urban areas range between 35-60% for those young people aged between 15 to 25 years, compared with rural areas where rates range between 20-25%.

Furthermore, as urban populations grow and urban development reaches its physical limits, residential land in cities will become expensive and limit development of low-income housing and employment opportunities. This is likely to result in more unemployed young people living in informal settlements and other marginalized areas that are highly vulnerable to climate change, as they have limited access to housing, livelihoods, food, energy, and sanitation. If not adequately planned for, urbanisation could result in increased unemployment, poverty and conflict in urban areas.

3. What does this mean for implementing the New Urban Agenda?

Habitat III was a critical opportunity to reinvigorate international action to tackle urban poverty and build more resilient cities. Climate change and disaster risk reduction were key priority areas for the conference, so it was an important and rare opportunity to discuss how climate mitigation or adaptation actions can interplay with the political context and exacerbate conflict dynamics.

When promoting a sustainable future for cities, building economic and social capital in order to support peace and stability will be particularly relevant in countries which face the combined challenges of youth bulges and limited resilience to climate impacts. Prioritizing equitable, climate-resilient economic growth, and strengthening democratic institutions to improve livelihoods and political inclusion for young people, will be key to promoting stability.

To fuel the discussion, there is a need for further exploration of the links between population, resources, economy and governance and how the interactions between these factors can positively or negatively reinforce security trends in particular contexts, in order to inform policy-making.