National UN Volunteer Christel Bercachy (front left) during a training session at the Municipality of Bourj Hammoud, on the first day of the Rapid Damage Assessment of the Port of Beirut blast, August 2020.
National UN Volunteer Christel Bercachy (front left) during a training session at the Municipality of Bourj Hammoud, on the first day of the Rapid Damage Assessment of the Port of Beirut blast, August 2020.

Better City, Better Life: helping communities in crisis-hit urban spaces rebuild and recover

In the Arab States, an urban sprawl is taking shape while the development of sustainable infrastructure lags behind. More than half of the population in the region resides in cities and human settlements – an estimate expected to increase to 70 per cent by 2030. UN Volunteers serving with UN-Habitat are supporting efforts to respond to the impact of COVID-19 on urban life in the region, while ensuring the region’s infrastructure needs are addressed in an inclusive manner.

On World Cities Day, we highlight the contributions of two UN Volunteers serving in support of UN-Habitat’s crisis recovery efforts in Lebanon and Iraq, where property loss and mass displacement have created complex urban environments.

A longstanding economic crisis and political stalemate has repeatedly tested the resilience of Lebanese people, who continue to host about 1.5 million Syrian refugees and a large community of refugees from Palestine, Iraq and other countries. When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Lebanon, commercial activities were halted or minimized and the outlook for the Lebanese economy became distressing. Furthermore, the practice of social distancing and adequate hygiene practices, central to reducing disease transmission, are not easily observed, particularly in dense urban communities in Lebanon, a country that has an almost 90 per cent urban population.

In this complex environment, national UN Volunteer Christel Bercachy supports UN-Habitat as a Geographical Information System (GIS) Assistant with the Neighbourhood Profiles project, which aims to build a national database of comparable data that can be used for better understanding and monitoring of dynamics in the most vulnerable urban pockets.

This, in turn, helps humanitarian agencies determine when, where and how to respond. It also provides a multi-sector knowledge baseline that informs disaster response planning over time, providing comparative and integrated data. By engaging people, municipalities and agencies embedded in the community, the project resolves knowledge gaps in real-time and makes disaster response an inclusive process.

As part of UN-Habitat’s COVID-19 response, Christel and her colleagues administered surveys to identify the most pressing needs and found key shortages in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector.

In response, we distributed hygiene and cleaning products, installed hand-washing stations and provided masks and protective equipment throughout the affected communities. These measures are aimed at slowing disease transmission, protecting frontline workers and promoting universal precautions and healthy behaviours. --Christel Berchachy, UN Volunteer with UN-Habitat, Lebanon

This support has contributed to alleviate the economic hardships faced by people who have suffered income losses because of the COVID-19 lockdown and the socio-economic downfall, which has rendered even the most basic hygiene items unaffordable. It was also catalytic, laying the framework for cooperation that was further necessitated by the explosion at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020.

The Port of Beirut explosion injured over 6,000 people and took more than 200 lives. Both residential and commercial districts were affected, including roughly 77,000 apartments, just within a 3 km radius. Schools, churches and other spaces were quickly retrofit into emergency shelters, as people were forced to leave their damaged homes. Moreover, the Port of Beirut is an important point of entry for more than 70 per cent of Lebanon’s imports.


UN-Habitat was a leading information source, conducting building inspections, developing knowledge products and strengthening partnerships to help displaced people return home safely. Christel played a role, working on-site at the municipality level along with members of the private sector. "We relocated to the municipalities to ensure both cooperation and capacity building in real-time. We also installed digital applications and software that expedited the process of data collection, analysis and information sharing," Christel says.

Immediately after the explosion, we were all sharing working areas, resources and technical expertise – in a new and critical partnership. Knowing that you are helping someone is everything. Yet, these partnerships are among the best aspects of being a UN Volunteer: meeting people and working alongside agencies and community leaders for the first time. --Christel Bercachy

While Christel worked at the municipal level, national UN Volunteer Amanj Maruf promoted resilience and inclusion at the household level. As a Data Entry Specialist with UN-Habitat in Iraq, Amanj maps, registers and validates land and property claims, maintaining a database that displaced and conflict-affected persons rely upon to [re]claim and protect their property. Through projects such as the Support to Housing, Land and Property Rights of Internally Displaced Persons in Nineveh, over 3,000 property and occupancy claims have been recognized.

Providing documentation that recognizes the housing, land and property rights of minorities in Iraq is an important step to rebuild lives, because repeated and sustained violence has forced many people, including minorities, to abandon their homes for a second and third time. --Amanj Maruf, UN Volunteer Data Entry Specialist with UN-Habitat, Iraq

In addition, Amanj leverages new software to collect, analyze and represent claims-related data. UN-Habitat relies upon this information to better advocate for displaced and underrepresented groups in contested areas and provide a second chance at recovery. Based in part upon interlinked focus areas such as inclusive and sustainable urban development, improved planning systems and effective urban crisis response – people can now hope for a better life and belong in a better city.