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Pathways to Urban Resilience for Indigenous Peoples

October 21, 2022

More than half of the global population – about 4.4 billion people - currently resides in cities. By 2050, this figure is expected to rise to 70 percent, with most of the growth happening in less developed regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and East Asia.1 Rapid urbanization will have implications on infrastructure such as housing, roads, transportation and communications networks, as well as services like water and energy provision and waste disposal.  Additionally, as cities’ populations grow, so will the risks posed by climate change. Cities currently consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.  Congestion, pollution, and poor sanitation and waste management characterize many urban areas in lower and middle-income countries, and those strained systems are more vulnerable to—and exacerbate--natural hazards. Marginalized, under-represented populations living in these countries will be at even greater risk if urban resilience initiatives don’t address the unique challenges and vulnerabilities that they face.

A group that often gets overlooked when we talk about rapid urbanization and the significant risks it poses to vulnerable groups is indigenous peoples. It is often assumed that they mainly live in rural areas.  However, in all parts of the globe, an increasing proportion of indigenous peoples have been migrating to urban areas for some time now—both voluntarily and involuntarily—due to lack of social services (such as education and health), natural disasters, lack of employment opportunities, dispossession, tribal conflicts, and the militarization of their land, to name a few.2

Indigenous peoples experience the shocks and stresses of migration and rapid urbanization more severely than others. Though a move to the city could mean better opportunities, the transition also means loss of culture, identity, and community. Statistics have also shown that, globally, 30 percent of indigenous persons living in cities tend to live in slum areas and work in the informal sector. This translates to financial vulnerability, food insecurity, restricted mobility (especially during climate-related events like storms, floods, droughts, landslides, heat waves or freezes, and wildfires), and limited access to learning and education opportunities. With urban health programs lacking an intercultural focus, health is also a major issue, with high numbers of cases for preventable diseases documented worldwide. Then there are the issues of discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion.

How can governments and donors help build resilience among urban indigenous communities?

  • Ensure that indigenous peoples are represented in urban resilience policy- and decision-making.  There is broad recognition of the importance of a multi-stakeholder governance approach when it comes to developing strategies to address current and future risks. However, indigenous peoples have been historically under-represented in these decision-making roles at the city level. Their participation in climate-related decision-making structures is also negligible. They should be meaningfully represented to ensure that their unique interests are reflected in policies and strategies. 
  • Prioritize investments in critical infrastructure and services, including water and electricity provision, sanitation, health, education, and digital technologies and ensure urban indigenous peoples and other vulnerable populations have equitable access.  Design programs for indigenous peoples to be culturally competent. 
  • Couple investments in infrastructure and basic services with social protection programs (such as cash transfers, public work programs, and social safety nets).  This is particularly relevant, since a huge proportion of indigenous urban peoples work in the informal sector and have no basic work protections like employment contracts, benefits, or collective representation.
  • Ensure that the budgeting process includes targeted funding for indigenous organizations and communities to help them directly plan and prioritize initiatives to address the specific risks their communities face. They have the best cultural and systemic understanding to respond to the challenges they face.
  • Generate data to aid planning and decision-making. Policies and strategies need to be informed by accurate and detailed data. That data needs to be disaggregated so that vulnerabilities can be properly mapped and assessed, and resources equitably allocated. Impacts should be monitored continuously to ensure that interventions are reaching their targeted populations and do not reinforce exclusion or discrimination.

As urban populations continue to grow and governments take deliberate steps to craft policies and programs aimed at increasing the ability of cities to survive and thrive as they adapt to stresses and shocks, vulnerable populations’ voices must be heard and their active participation, fostered. Indigenous communities, in particular, have a disproportionate stake in both the challenges and opportunities of the urban dynamic.

1UNFCCC. (2020, Oct 5). Urban Climate Action Is Crucial to Bend the Emissions Curve

2United Nations. Urban Indigenous Peoples and Migration: Challenges and Opportunities.

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