LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Residents of Karonga, a lakeside city of about 60,000 in northern Malawi, face no shortage of risks.
Flooding is an annual problem that's worsening with climate change and poor maintenance of the channels that carry out the excess water. Only 17 percent of households have piped water, and half of people use water tainted with sewage, leading to cholera and other disease deaths.
But the worst challenge facing the fast-growing city – which records everything from crocodile attack to sexual assault as regular problems – is that there's no real city government.
Instead, the community operates under the authority of an outdated rural council that is "lacking in transparency and unable to cope with the complex nature of Karonga urban life," according to a report by Urban Africa Risk Knowledge, a British aid-funded program focused on helping fast-urbanizing sub-Saharan Africa reduce its growing risks.
"There are no systems present in small centers" like Karonga, said Mtafu Manda, a researcher with Malawi's Mzuzu University and the lead author of the report.
"Or if they exist, it is only on paper."
Disaster risks are arguably rising faster in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else, said Arabella Fraser, a risk and resilience researcher at the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
That's in part the result of surging urban populations, a quickening pace of climate-related problems - such as flooding and drought - and an inability to beat back those risks because of poverty, poor data, lack of training and badly run government, she said at a discussion held at ODI on Thursday.
But plenty of ideas are emerging about how growing African cities can cut their risks.
Among them: organize slum dwellers to improve the infrastructure or simply sort out which risks are the key ones, and focus on those first, experts at the discussion said.
These days, "one of the most difficult jobs in the world is being an African mayor," said Meggan Spires of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), which is based in Cape Town.
"The challenges are vast, complex and immediate, and many are day to day," said Spires, who formerly worked on climate change issues for the South African city of Durban.
Finding time to deal with demands to be proactive and work toward greater sustainability, in line with international agreements like the Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Agreement on climate change, is a heavy burden, she said.
One thing that can help, she said, is ensuring that efforts to build urban resilience are not just short-term, donor-funded projects but are based on community demand and then built into city plans, often with innovative funding.
Donors aiming to improve resilience in Africa need to "be humble and recognize that Africans know their cities best. We should listen to them rather than imposing solutions on them."
TURNING TO THE SLUMS
One way to get effective change underway is to harness organizations of slum dwellers, who make up large parts of the population in many African cities, said David Satterthwaite, an urban specialist with the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.
About 18 slum dweller federations have formed in Africa, with about 15 of them collecting data door to door on everything from healthcare to schools, drainage to eviction threats.
Satterthwaite called it "an information base that provides a new possibility for local governments...to form, drive and implement new risk-reduction efforts."
One thing that's clear from data already collected in cities such as Tanzania's Dar es Salaam, for instance, is that health threats kill many more people each year than floods, even though residents see those as the biggest risk, he said.
That means investments in things like sanitation systems and clean water may have the biggest payoff - though getting funding can be tough when donors focus on climate change adaptation or disaster risk reduction efforts, Satterthwaite said.
Manda, of Malawi, said keeping politics in mind is also key to making progress in Africa's cities - and small cities have the toughest challenges of all, he said.
Political leaders "don't think about the small towns, partially because they don't live there but also because they want to benefit from the chaos," he said.
"When there is a disaster, when they go there as some kind of savior, they are seen to be very good," he said. "And because of that, the risks in these small towns will escalate."
(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Lyndsay Griffiths: Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)