The slum communities, also known as informal settlements, although they have a significant impact on the development and advancement of Nairobi City as the capital of Kenya and an important economic and socio-political hub in Africa, are highly vulnerable to climate change.
According to one of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments, climate risks are concentrated in informal settlements. By virtue of slum communities being located in hazardous areas, overcrowded, and lacking vital infrastructure such as drainage systems heightens the exposure and vulnerability of the residents to these climate risks.
Flooding is one of the climate-related risks that has been witnessed several times annually in the past in Nairobi’s slums. Recently, Nairobi received heavy rains across different parts of the city. Incidences of flooding due to heavy downpours have been recorded even in places that are not considered slums.
This signals that the informal settlements in Nairobi are at a high risk of flooding especially going by the past flood trends and if risk mitigation measures were not put in place. Often, floods occur not only through area-specific heavy rainfall but also due to fluvial and torrential floods.
During field assessments for an ongoing research study on climate adaptation approaches among the urban poor in Nairobi, we asked the residents in the informal settlements to list three major challenges in their neighbourhoods; poor drainage, including open sewers and flooding, topped the list. Beyond the infrastructural challenges, we noted that a sizeable number of people live on the riverbanks, meaning they are at a high risk of floods. Essentially, the locational factor upsurges the vulnerability of slum residents to floods.
Therefore, building the resilience of informal settlements to climate risks demands holistic strategies; infrastructural, policy, nature-based, financial and knowledge-based, among others.
For example, finding a long-term measure for the frequent floods in some of the slum areas will not only solve the flood issue but address other socio-environmental challenges and, more so, climate-induced risks. That means making a complete improvement of the informal settlements.
Infrastructural development, for example, would mean improving the road network to include paved roads, waterways and walking and cycling lanes. It also means improving the housing structures such that they are resilient to floods and strong winds and are well-ventilated. It could also mean establishing more public toilets and showers connected to functioning public sewers.
It is noted, however, that slum upgrading projects have been established in the past in Nairobi’s slums. Nonetheless, the core aspects of climate change had not been fully factored in hence the unending climate threats.
Considering that the informal settlements are densely populated, it is obvious the amount of liquid and solid waste generated per day or per hour is massive. The status of the existing drainage systems and open sewers may have limited capacity to accommodate all. Thus, upgrading the drainage systems in Kibera or Mathare settlements, for example, will mitigate climate-associated risks, especially floods.
Redirecting the sewage from the rivers and ensuring that all sewers are closed will keep the rivers clean, allowing aquatic life to thrive and for the local residents to draw water from the rivers or streams for their domestic or other uses. The approach will likely reduce fluvial flooding.
Nature-based solutions, which include activities such as river restoration and planting trees, grasses, and flowers, would also be an ideal way to improve the socio-environmental conditions in the slums. Vegetation cover will reduce flood velocity leading to reduced damage downstream. Trees will act as windbreakers, provide shade, and enhance the natural beauty of the slum areas that hardly have trees. In addition, trees are carbon sinks and enhance urban cooling.
Creating green spaces would give the informal settlements a facelift, making them greener and more natural. However, it is apparent that most of these informal settlements have limited to no empty spaces left that could be turned into mini-gardens or forests. Still, trees and grasses could be planted along the roads and rivers.
Fundamentally, in-situ upgrading is better for improving slum situations than when slum dwellers are relocated or evicted.
Achieving almost all the proposed initiatives above requires applicable policies and regulations, finances and a willing and informed population. The slum residents, in most cases, are incapacitated financially and knowledge-wise to initiate and implement these proposals by themselves or without external support, whether from the government, individuals, or non-state actors. This means collaborative support is prudent, and there must be political goodwill, and the community should be at the centre of all plans and decision-making processes.
Environmental Research Scientist