UA Magazine no. 21 - Linking Relief, Rehabilitation and Development - A role for urban agriculture?

Linking Relief, Rehabilitation and Development: A role for urban agriculture?

Natural hazards, civil conflicts, wars and economic crises continue to generate unstable and unsafe conditions, placing immense pressures on communities and local livelihoods. These emergency scenarios often result in people fleeing their homes to other areas or crossing borders to other countries, thereby creating mass refugee situations. Many of these refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) have to remain in refugee camps for extended periods or reside (often illegally) in and around urban areas.

Consequently, many people living under the harsh conditions of refugee life will try to improve their food security by establishing some form of agriculture, such as small-scale gardening in refugee camps, in backyards, or on open spaces outside settlements. And where land is limited they may resort to micro-technologies, such as container gardening, pots on shelves or hanging baskets.

In the previous issues of Urban Agriculture Magazine we highlighted the multiple functions of urban agriculture, including its role in building communities and sustainable environments. We also discussed the processes of technological, organisational and institutional innovation in urban agriculture. In this issue we focus on the role urban agriculture plays in linking relief, rehabilitation and development following a disaster or in emergency situations. Different types of disasters and resulting impacts are discussed and illustrated by articles in this magazine.

Disaster situations can be viewed as a series of phases on a time continuum. Identifying and understanding these phases may help aid workers and urban planners identify disaster-related needs and then implement the appropriate disaster management activities. For example, the rehabilitation phase after a disaster provides significant opportunities to initiate development programmes, and act as a catalyst for the implementation of mitigation and preparedness strategies, thus building longer-term resilience. Rehabilitation programmes can be specifically aimed at teaching new skills, and strengthening the sense of community and leadership. This is particularly important in the case of protracted refugee situations and in urban areas. In the longer term this capacity building process can also contribute to restoring local municipal government, which in turn legitimises and builds good governance at the state level.

Urban agriculture has always been used as a food security strategy during economic and emergency situations. Examples include the extensive “Dig for Victory” campaign in Britain during the Second World War, and more recently “Operation Feed Yourself” in Ghana during the 1970s. Similarly in many other countries, backyard farming, and institutional and school gardening have all been encouraged during times of food instability, with many examples featured in this issue.

Similarities exist between agriculture in camp settings and in urban and slum areas. Urban agriculture, with its emphasis on space-confined technologies, use of composted organic waste and recycling of grey wastewater, may offer good options for the provision of fresh vegetables, eggs, dairy products and other perishables to the population of the “new town” in addition to generating some income. Often stimulated by relief organisations, refugees start growing highly nutritious crops for their own consumption and to fill immediate needs. These crops require only a limited growing period and a low investment, using (often available) traditional knowledge and skills. 
Experiences show that refugee agriculture is not only a survival strategy for displaced people to obtain food on a temporary basis, but it is also a valuable livelihood strategy for those that settle permanently, and for those who eventually return to their home cities or countries. Many displaced people, both in camps and in and around cities, engage in agriculture for subsistence and market production. And more and more local and national authorities, as well as relief agencies, are not only allowing but intentionally supporting agricultural production activities as part of their development strategies (see box on UNHCR). Urban agriculture can play an important role in all aspects of the disaster management cycle and is a multifunctional policy instrument and tool for practical application.

Growing food in camps and cities, when appropriate to the local conditions, reduces dependency on (rural) food supplies, which can easily be affected by disrupted transport, armed conflicts, droughts or flooding. It improves the availability and access to more nutritious food, and in the longer term may increase a city’s resilience.