Surviving in the slums

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While the growth of mega-cities and mega-risks like earthquakes capture headlines, far more lives in urban areas are lost to everyday disasters caused by dirty drinking water and sanitation. If organizations want to enhance the resilience of slum dwellers, they must understand how risk and coping in the city have become urbanized.

Rapid, unplanned urbanisation is altering the nature and magnitude of environmental risks, sometimes creating new risks. Urbanisation renders customary coping mechanisms less effective, but also provides new ways of coping. This chapter draws on research in Mumbai, India, which examined the relationship between community coping and livelihood strategies for slum dwellers.

Nearly half the world lives in urban areas, and numbers are accelerating. Over the next two decades, 90 per cent of population growth in developing countries will be urban. Municipalities can’t keep up. In Mumbai, 60 per cent of the city’s 23 million inhabitants occupy 6 per cent of its total area – an average density of 2,000 people per hectare. In some slums, 50 families share a single toilet.

Uncontrolled urban growth exacerbates hazards and vulnerability. The land where slum dwellers settle is often dangerous – steep slopes, flood plains, railway lines, industrial zones. As building spreads, rainwater cannot soak away. Monsoon floodwaters that remain a few days in well-serviced districts can stay for a month in slums.

Garbage and sewage are left out, since the municipality cannot or will not remove it. Diseases from dirty water and sanitation kill 2.2 million people a year worldwide – many of them slum children. Death rates in central Mumbai during the 1990s were three times higher than in well-to-do districts. As slums and factories often share the same space, floods carry a hazardous mixture of chemicals, sewage, garbage and debris. The density of weak structures means even minor earth tremors or fires can rapidly spread destruction.

Slum dwellers’ livelihoods are bound to the marketplace. Food, water and fuel have to be bought, rather than being found or produced locally. Poor families lack secure storage space, so they may be unable to access vital supplies during crisis. Urban dwellers have fewer livelihood assets than many rural inhabitants, who can often access some cash, subsistence farming, livestock, communal exchange, savings and family land.

The change from rural, communal livelihoods to a market-based strategy reduces scope for social cohesion as livelihoods are less linked. Many urban dwellers depend on a single income source. If the market drops, companies go bankrupt, or the breadwinner falls ill, people can lose their entire livelihood strategy.

The house, as a place to earn a living and maintain a healthy lifestyle, is vital to slum dwellers. One Mumbai woman raised the floor of her one-room house above flood level, despite the enormous expense, because her income depended on beading fabric at home and she had to work throughout the monsoon. Her neighbour, however, worked outside the home, so raising her floor was not so necessary. The way slum dwellers boost their resilience depends on how they perceive their risks.

Urban governance can be an agent of disaster. Slum dwellers rely on access to resources and governance is about who controls that access. However, the interests of the poor are often not considered. In Mumbai, 92 per cent of inhabitants squat in informal settlements. Their ‘illegal’ status means they cannot raise loans, call the police, vote, or send their children to schools or clinics. Often they cannot claim services such as refuse collection or clean water and sanitation.

Municipalities perpetuate risk by failing to impose high construction standards. In Mumbai, building codes only specify earthquake standards for government buildings. The illegality of slum housing puts householders off home improvements. If authorities see improvements, they can evict the occupants and rent out the dwellings to others willing to pay for the protection. So not only is the municipality unable or unwilling to mitigate risks for informal settlers, it actually incapacitates them from adapting themselves.

Many slum dwellers become pessimistic, due to the magnitude of risk and lack of municipal response. Most are resigned to ill health and premature death. Slum communities are less cohesive than rural villages, as people focus on individual livelihoods. So, even if they have a latent capacity to enhance their resilience, a lack of social cohesion prevents that from happening. There are exceptions – the potters of Kumbharwadi slum, whose shared livelihood motivated them to cooperate.

Jennifer Rowell, urban technical adviser at CARE International (UK), was principal contributor to this chapter and the Box

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Jan Egeland, United Nations’ Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

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