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Dominic Chavez / World Bank

Chapter 13 Managing urban risk

Urban food security

Photo: Dominic Chavez / World Bank

Food security is discussed in more detail in Chapter 14, but it is important to note here that food insecurity is increasingly becoming an urban problem. Urban populations depend on food brought in from outside and purchased in markets. Serious problems can arise where food supplies are cut or prices rise beyond the reach of the poor. This may happen suddenly as the result of a range of economic and environmental factors, including declines in agricultural productivity, extreme weather events, shifts in agricultural production from food to other crops such as biofuels or increased transport costs.

Until recently, little attention was paid to this risk in disaster management circles, despite the obvious social and political consequences of food insecurity, the difficulty of identifying vulnerable groups in this context and the considerable challenges involved in purchasing and distributing large amounts of food. However, sudden and significant fluctuations in food prices in many countries in recent years have demonstrated the dependence of urban populations on the global food supply, exchange and distribution system. There is concern that climate change may make levels of food production (and hence food prices) more erratic and less predictable.

Urban food insecurity is largely the result, not of food shortages but of poor households’ inability to buy food. This may be because the price has risen, because earnings are low or erratic or because money has to be spent on other pressing needs, such as medicine or house repairs. Food represents a significant proportion of poor urban households’ expenditure (often well over half). Overcrowded housing may mean that food can be bought and stored only in small amounts, which is more expensive than buying in quantity.

Towns and cities have come to depend on actions at national and even international levels to ensure adequate and affordable supplies of food. NGOs do not have the capacity to manage acute, large-scale urban food crises; however, local-level agencies can play a role in food monitoring and distribution. In some places, city dwellers also make use of informal food ‘safety nets’ provided by relatives living in rural areas, who send food they have produced themselves.

There is also potential for reducing food insecurity through urban agriculture. Several hundred million urban dwellers are also urban farmers, growing food, medicinal and other plants and raising animals, for consumption and sale, in many different urban locations, ranging from rooftops and backyards to school grounds, parks and vacant public land, in the centre of towns and cities and their peri-urban edges. Women make up the majority of urban farmers, growing mainly for their households, with men more involved in commercial farming. There is evidence from cities in many low-income countries that urban agriculture can make a significant contribution to local food production and consumption, as well as livelihoods. There is much that can be done to promote and develop it, for example through technical advice on crop production, processing and marketing, and helping communities to negotiate with local authorities and landowners. At the same time, urban agriculture can bring its own hazards, such as creating breeding sites for mosquitoes through irrigation, exposure to pesticides and contamination of crops by chemicals, heavy metals, untreated water or human waste. Land for growing may also come under threat from developers, be taken over by slum landlords or occupied by squatters.