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Responding to climate change in cities and in their informal settlements and economies

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THE CHALLENGES FROM INFORMALITY: One of the greatest challenges for climate change adaptation is how to build resilience for the billion urban dwellers who are estimated to live in what are termed informal settlements. These settlements are concentrated in urban centres in low- and middle-income nations. They have been built outside the ‘formal’ system of laws and regulations that are meant to ensure resilient structures, settlements and systems. Those who live in informal settlements and those who work in the informal economy form a critical part of each city’s economy. But they cannot find ‘formal’ housing that they can afford. So, they live in settlements that are outside the formal system of regulations for recording land acquisition and for acquiring legal land tenure; also, for getting permission to develop buildings. They are outside the rules and regulations on land-use, buildings and infrastructure and service provision. Most (but not all) are on land that is illegally occupied. Most do not receive the infrastructure and services that should be provided in urban contexts such as reliable, safe water piped to homes, good provision within the household for sanitation, paved roads and paths, storm and surface drains and connection to electricity grids. Most residents of informal settlements also rely on informal services and informal employment.

ELEVATING RISKS: Many informal settlements are on land sites at high risk from flooding and landslides; these sites are chosen by their residents because they are less likely to be evicted as the land is unattractive to developers. Most housing structures in informal settlements are poor quality. The result is that most informal settlements concentrate high levels of risk from infectious and parasitic diseases, accidental fires and natural hazards and pollution. Thus, the conditions of life in informal settlements elevate risk from most climate change impacts such as higher (and increasing) maximum temperatures and heat waves, more intense precipitation events and riverine floods, wind storms with higher wind speeds, changes in water availability and sea-level rise.

CONSTRAINTS ON GOVERNMENT ACTION: For city governments, addressing these issues is complicated by the many ways in which informal settlements break laws and contravene regulations. It is also complicated by the fact that in many nations, local governments ignore those living in informal settlements or evict them, even when these settlements house more than half a city’s residents and much of its labour force. In other instances, urban governments do commit to building resilience but are hampered by limited technical capacity, lack of funding and political constraints. ANOTHER PATH: But there is another way for governments to view this issue that was first articulated in the 1960s – to recognize the many positive aspects of informal settlements and to work with the inhabitants and their community organizations in providing needed infrastructure and services and improving housing quality. This ‘upgrading’ of informal settlements has become common practice in many nations as described in Section 3 – some driven by local governments responding to democratic pressures, some driven by community organizations but supported by local governments.