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Climate change and urban violence: A critical knowledge gap

Photo: Shutterstock.
Photo: Shutterstock.

Cities will play a key role in humanity’s future. More than half  of the world’s population (57 per cent) lived in urban areas in 2022 and the share is projected to reach almost 70 per cent by 2050. Cities already feature in the climate change debate for their carbon footprints and, in many cases, leadership and innovation in the green transition. But they are also uniquely vulnerable to climate change.

There has been little research to date on how climate change could increase the risk of urban violence, but there are many reasons to think that it could do so. As both urbanization and climate change intensify, there is an urgent need to understand this relationship in order to prevent the effects of climate change from becoming yet another source of violence in cities. 

This blog examines one potential set of causal relationships by which climate change might increase the risk of violence being perpetrated by or against the urban poor: perceived governance failures that make them more vulnerable to climate change impacts, causing grievances that eventually result in violence.

Exposure and vulnerability to climate change in cities 

Cities are exposed to a wide variety of climate change effects. Research suggests that the most important impacts are likely to be higher average temperatures, heatwaves, flooding from changing rainfall patterns and sea-level rise, and water scarcity. 

An example of how climate change can impact urban residents is flooding. Around the world, about 25 per cent of the global population lives in high-risk flood zones, the vast majority in developing countries. Flooding has myriad effects on cities, including by increasing public health risks and disease outbreaks when water and sanitation systems are compromised, and damaging or destroying property. Flooding can disproportionately impact the urban poor, especially if they live in informal settlements in flood-prone zones. 

While flooding can be the result of heavier rainfall, many of the world’s cities will also be exposed to the effects of sea-level rise. By 2050, it is projected that about 800 million people will be living in cities affected by at least half a metre of sea level rise. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for example, approximately 8 per cent of the city is currently below sea level, putting at least 143 000 people at risk of coastal flooding. Informal settlements in Dar es Salaam are also growing as a result of a rapidly increasing population, including in already coastal flood-prone areas. Coastal flooding not only destroys property but it can damage critical infrastructure and contaminate the city’s freshwater resources. 

From governance failures to grievances

Poor urban governance and infrastructure can increase vulnerability to the effects of climate change. For example, in 2023, Storm Daniel hit the east coast of Libya, bringing with it strong winds and heavy rainfall which led to extensive flooding. The storm caused the failure of a long-neglected dam, which led to the total destruction of whole neighbourhoods in the port city of Derna, with thousands killed and tens of thousands displaced.

Even before Storm Daniel, poverty rates in Derna were high and other infrastructure was badly maintained. One week after the storm, grievances against the city government spilled over when residents of Derna took to the streets to demand accountability for the neglect of the dam and the mismanagement of the crisis. The protests escalated to violence when protesters set the house of the city’s then mayor alight.

Poor governance and neglect often contribute disproportionately to the climate change vulnerability of poor and marginalized urban communities. As well as failing to build these communities’ preparedeness and resilience ahead of time, authorities have often provided inadequate help during crises and post-crisis recovery. For example, during flooding in Accra, Ghana, in June and July of 2006, authorities provided no concrete assistance to informal communities, even after complaints were lodged, forcing residents to fend for themselves. Such neglect can fuel grievances, potentially leading to unrest and even violent protest—as well as violent suppression by state or private actors. 

In some cases, official responses to climate change impacts even make the situation worse for affected communities. For example, recent flooding in Nairobi, Kenya, affected more than 380 000 people across the city, but the government’s response has created more difficulties for poor communities. Reportedly invoking its ‘duty to protect lives’ as justification, the government has evicted low-income residents living within 30 metres of riparian zones, demolishing their homes and providing them with temporary shelter. Further fueling grievances and resentment against the government, many affected families have still not received financial compensation promised by Kenya’s President William Ruto.

More research is needed on the links to urban violence

There are solid grounds for believing that climate change impacts could increase the risk of violence in affected cities and urban communities. When authorities fail to protect and support communities, and especially when the actions of authorities—or indeed of private citizens or businesses—are perceived as contributing to a community’s marginalization and vulnerability, this can be a source of anger and resentment. 

The research on urban violence shows that such grievances can be a source of violence, direct or indirect. Because the world is rapidly urbanizing, and climate change will increasingly affect cities, it is reasonable to assume that—unless steps are taken to reduce the vulnerability of urban communities, increase their resilience and provide adequate, just responses—climate change could increase grievances among urban communities that in turn spill over into violence.

However, academic research on how climate change contributes to urban violence is very limited. Most of the research focuses on the impacts of urban flooding on unrest, including riots and violent demonstrations, and indicates that flood-related violence tends to occur in places where affected groups are marginalized

However, the limitations of the research leave it unclear how, and even whether, grievances constitute a predictable pathway by which urban marginalization and climate vulnerability lead to unrest and potential violence. More research is therefore needed to understand what these circumstances are and how the climate-related grievance mechanisms play out—for example, when and how grievances might lead to violence and how this can be prevented. There may also be other mechanisms linking climate change and urban violence that are worth exploring. For example, climate mitigation or adaptation measures could cause grievances if they are poorly planned or perceived as unjust.

Equipped with that understanding, addressing the effects of climate change can be used as an entry point for violence prevention in tomorrow’s cities.


Dr Farah Hegazi is a Researcher in the SIPRI Climate Change and Risk Programme.