In recent years fires have become a common cause of loss of life and property for many communities. Whether at a school or market in Kampala or in faraway lands such as in the case of Senegal where 11 newborn babies just died in a neonatal section of a regional hospital, fires have become a common source of loss for communities across the world.
Experts say climate change has fueled this widespread fire problem, but human intervention to reverse this trend is possible. In California and Australia, where wildfires have burned through millions of acres of forest, changing climate led to lower precipitation and high temperatures which resulted in very dry vegetation that is a lot more flammable.
In cities of developing nations such as Kampala, climate change drives rapid and poorly planned rural-urban migration, as young people flee lands whose productivity has reduced.
The young people heading into cities for a chance at formal employment end up in crowded informal settlements and ghettos. Their services are to be found in poorly organized markets, while at the same time these young people exert pressure on underfunded social infrastructures like schools, hospitals and water and sanitation resources.
But a sea town in Portugal seems to have looked at all these challenges and figured out a solution. Matosinhos, a major port and fishing city in Portugal was recognized at the 2022 global platform for disaster risk reduction that took place in Bali, Indonesia for among other things coming up with a solution to the recurring fire incidents.
Matosinhos, a port and fishing town near Porto in Portugal reduced the number of fire incidents from 108 in 2015 to 24 last year and officials are planning to cut that number to zero within the next five years.
Matosinhos, alongside the province of Potenza in Italy, are the latest to become part of the making cities resilient 2030, an initiative brought together by among others the United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) agency to better reduce the cost of disasters.
Due to climate change, there has been an increase in the frequency of disasters with the 2022 Global Assessment Report of Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR) showing that by 2030, the situation could be worse.
Susana Goncalves, the Head of Matosihno’s Civil Protection Department says her town used to have the biggest number of fire incidents in all of north Portugal. But these have been reduced by 84 per cent over the last five years through cheap and affordable interventions. Among the things that Matosinhos did was to reduce the deadwood and dry vegetation that would have otherwise acted as tinder for the fires.
“What we started was a strategy to connect with the owners of the forest, to clean all the forests that we have in Matosinhos,” she says.
In California where large fires have become perennial, one of the problems highlighted by experts is that forests are no longer cleaned as regularly as they used to be, and this provides a lot of dry tinder.
With the forests around the municipality clean, the incidents reduced, which in turn was good for the environment, as it meant less soot in the atmosphere. Fewer houses and infrastructure were destroyed by the fires.
The cleaning has also been coupled with the distribution of trees that are indigenous to the area. According to officials in Matosinhos, research has found that indigenous trees are not as fire-prone as those that were imported into the area.
The city also carried out more than 3,000 community awareness campaigns between 2009 and 2019, and last year created the Motasinhos safety home, where the public can learn about fires and how to deal with the risks.
These interventions, according to Goncalves have been strengthened by Portugal’s laws that don’t allow for frequent land-use changes. One example that is cited is that a law has been passed to prohibit deforestation around cities and municipalities, even if this creates some undesirable pressure that targets political and business leaders.
“When you have a city, land is a real problem because everyone that has land wants to build and wants to take profit from their land,” she says.
However, even if a forest around the city is all burnt down, the owner would be expected to reforest the area, as the law requires that one needs ten years before land use purpose can change to real estate.
And having been recognised for exemplary policy on dealing with fires, which are a real and common challenge due to climate change, Motasinhos has now offered to work with other cities in the developing world. Matosinhos has offered to work with local governments in Brazil and East Timor so that cities and municipalities in these developing countries find a solution to this 21st-century scourge.
Asked on whether the developing world can afford these interventions, Goncalves says yes, because Matosihnos didn’t invest lots of money either.
“I think everyone can make a difference because not everything has to be expensive. Sometimes the low-cost projects are the best because they are the projects that get down to the people,” she says.