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“Urban dynamics such as shortage of affordable land and housing force the urban poor to settle on hazardous marginal lands in the city”

Gazdar Bandh, an informal settlement in Mumbai, India.
Gazdar Bandh, an informal settlement in Mumbai, India.

In this interview, Ebba Brink reflects on the specific set of sustainability challenges facing informal settlements in India, and how they can be addressed. She is part of the project BInUCom which focuses on how Indian planning and architecture schools can develop their curricula to better address the complex challenges of informality, environmental risks and social exclusion faced by the urban poor. One project outcome is for students and teachers to gain the tools and knowledge to adapt informal settlements to better resist the effects of climate change, such as floods, heat waves and land erosion.

Ebba Brink’s role in the project is, together with LUCSUS professor Christine Wamsler, to provide expertise on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction for a number of case studies of challenges facing informal settlements. The case studies are produced by teachers at various architectural institutes in India, and will form the basis of an educational portfolio to be used in teaching. Ebba has also had the opportunity to engage directly with students at several of the institutes.

What are the most pressing challenges facing informal settlements as the impacts of climate change are set to increase?

People living in informal settlements are disproportionately affected by the kinds of hazards that we expect will increase with climate change, including flooding, landslides, heat stress and water scarcity. 

This is not only true for larger extreme weather events, but also for small-scale everyday hazards, which can cause large damage by eroding people’s resources and capacities to improve their lives. In areas where sanitation is lacking, water- and vector-borne diseases like diarrhoea, malaria and leptospirosis also spread more easily in the aftermath of hazard events. In other words, climate change impacts will interact with existing inequalities and make them worse.

What are the reasons behind these challenges - what has caused them?

There are several reasons and some are more distant in space and time. Urban dynamics, including shortage of affordable land and housing, force the urban poor to settle on hazardous marginal lands in the city. Examples of such places are floodplains or close to rivers, hill slopes prone to landslides, and near toxic dumpsites or industries.

These settlements are often neglected by governments, which means that housing is mostly self-built and infrastructure for waste management, sewage and drainage is precarious. This makes them very vulnerable to the damaging effects of a hazard. Even if they have access to the municipal water network, it might only be functioning during certain hours, so when water is scarce in the city, it is even scarcer in the slum.

In addition, many houses crammed into a small area means that fire easily spreads from one house to another. There is also limited space for evacuating people or for emergency vehicles to enter. The bottom line is that there are physical, environmental, social, economic and institutional causes of climate risk in informal settlements, and an important root cause is inequality.

How does the Indian context – like the megacity of Mumbai – compare to what you have seen in other countries?

What’s particular to the Indian context is the caste system as another dimension of inequality. What’s similar to many other developing cities is that authorities’ solution to at-risk informal settlements has often been to evict people – sometimes without providing an alternative. This might put them out of harm’s way, or they end up in another hazardous place. But it certainly increases their vulnerability to hazards, for instance by dispersing existing social networks and setting people back perhaps many years with regards to what they have invested in their house and community.

How can these challenges be solved - and on what level?

I don’t think they can be solved once and for all, but they need to be addressed through constant and persistent work at many levels. To match the factors that make people at risk, risk reduction needs to use a combination of physical, ecosystem-based, social, economic and institutional types of measures, and address both the root causes and more immediate causes of risk. Building risk reduction into institutional structures and mechanisms, like urban planning practices, is very important to make sure that it is carried out as part of routine work. 

Interventions also need to resonate with the local culture and sustain people’s capacities and livelihoods rather than erode them. One way is to support in-place upgrading instead of eviction if the risk is fairly low. But even with in-place approaches, if the provided structures or adaptations do not resonate with the way people actually live, they might become misused or mismanaged and potentially increase risk. 

For example, green roofs, or roofs that can collect rainwater, are very interesting from the perspective of addressing heat, small-scale flooding and water scarcity in informal settlements. But green roofs might not be possible in crowded settlements where people use their roof as an extension of their living area.

Similarly, rainwater collection requires safe storage of the water to avoid creating breeding ground for mosquitos that spread diseases. It would be very interesting to explore such solutions together with residents of informal settlements. That’s a direction I can imagine taking my research in the future.

What will the future of these settlements look like? Can you say anything about this area in particular?

It’s a very acute situation, where these settlements are under pressure from both harsh urban power dynamics and global climate change. More people are leaving the countryside every day to migrate to cities in search of a better life, and they often end up in informal settlements. Residents in these settlements are also under the threat of eviction, since the authorities want to redevelop the land.

We need urgent action to protect vulnerable populations facing climate change. This requires a new generation of planners and architects who are sensitised to these issues.

About the researchers

Christine Wamsler is a professor at LUCSUS and an expert in sustainable urban development, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction with more than 20 years of working experience, both in theory and practice.

To Christine Wamsler's personal page.

Ebba Brink is a resercher at LUCSUS and recently defended her thesis on climate adaptation and citizen engagement. Her research is interdisciplinary and focuses on the roles of people and nature in the governance of urban climate risk

To Ebba Brink's personal page.


Building Inclusive Urban Communities (BInUCom)

The project BInUCom: Building Inclusive Urban Communities, is funded under EU Erasmus+ Program in the field of Capacity Building in Higher Education. It is carried out in collaboration between four Indian and three European universities. Project leader at LUCSUS is Professor Christine Wamsler.

Funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union

Gazdar Bandh, an informal settlement in Mumbai, India.

  • An informal settlement located on the Mumbai coastline.
  • Home to around 100, 000 people, who work in diverse sectors and industries in the city. 
  • At high risk of inland flooding because of canals blocked with solid waste, and flooding from the sea because of insufficient flood protection walls.