Flooded slums: disaster's disproportionate effect on informal communities

A recent UN report shows that the growth of urban slums in the Global South paired with extreme weather brought on by climate change has dramatically increased the risk of "megadisasters," including floods. The urban poor are especially vulnerable as they do not have the proper infrastructure: poorly constructed buildings cannot withstand disasters, and poor urban planning makes rescue more difficult. This week's topic focuses on how informal communities can mitigate these risks in advance. Read on to learn about solutions from Cape Town, Bangalore, Lagos, and URB.im's newest city, Surabaya.


Cape Town


Tariq Toffa

The big and the small: Designing for disaster and dwelling in neighborhoods of change

Tariq Toffa, Cape Town Community Manager


For newly arrived migrants and the unemployed in cities like Cape Town, wood and tin shacks built on flood plains and wetland or river fringes are often the only opportunities for land and affordable accommodation in urban areas. In 2000 it was estimated that most of the approximately 100,000 people in South Africa living below flood levels along rivers and streams live in informal settlements. A clear relationship therefore exists between unequal processes of urbanization and disasters like flooding, exacerbated by the frequent and devastating informal settlement fires ("shack fires"). There are various approaches, each with their own constraints and shortcomings, which have been undertaken to address these predictable cycles of misery.

The primary approach of the City of Cape Town has been invested in better fire emergency control (education drives, increasing fire-fighting capacity, a post-fire 2.7m² tin house, and humanitarian assistance). This has successfully reduced the fire mortality rate, but the scale of homes destroyed remains high.

A second approach, as advocated by the Paraffin Safety Association of Southern Africa, targets safe and multiple energy sources as a solution to shack fires.

In a third approach, the City has recently also begun looking toward a more pre-emptive approach to shack fires. In 2012 the City embraced a 'blocking-out' upgrading model (the reconfiguration of settlement layouts into clusters, allowing emergency vehicle access and some protection against the spread of fires), for several years the preferred model of the South African SDI alliance and local NGO Ikhayalami (fig. 1). Notwithstanding the successes of this innovative model, there are other factors not adequately addressed, such as natural growth and open space encroachment, and the reduced numbers of people who can be accommodated in the new settlement layout type.

A fourth approach explores creative, readily implementable projects or adaptions of existing strategies. 'Touching the Earth Lightly' (TEL), for example, a Cape Town-based design company, has in this regard built some innovative pilot projects which address key issues like fires and flooding. TEL's recent "light house" in Hangberg, Cape Town, is a cheap, low-tech house made flood-proof by sitting on stilts; while pre-fabricated wall panels are treated with fire retardant magnesium, and window shutters are designed with ties that quickly disintegrate in a fire, thus containing its spread (fig. 2). In TEL's "green shack" pilot project in 2012, a low-tech, vertical vegetable garden also functions as an alternative form of a fire wall (fig. 3).

A hybrid fire wall concept was also proposed by Emeritus Professor Julian Cooke of the University of Cape Town. Cooke proposed building fire walls between structures, not only to impede the spread of fire, but as the key first phase in a process of upgrading. Wall building would enable people to build their own structures up against it, and in so doing open up other spaces, including those for emergency vehicle access and services. The idea could create rich urban environments, yet is simple and economical (fig. 4).

As informal settlements are not only urban realities, but continually changing ones, an appreciation of their complexities requires continuing innovation toward more holistic and sustainable approaches, and the (political) will for their implementation. The slowness of changes or adaptions to prevailing strategies, by contrast, illustrates that new creative and innovative approaches which learn from existing processes must be implemented or piloted in parallel if they are to have any affect. The alternative is stagnation, or a new status quo, despite lessons learned in implementation. Parallel or pilot projects such as those described can in the meantime begin to bridge the gulf between formal housing delivery and the cycles of poverty and disaster.

Fig. 1: Bolnick 2011. Fig. 2 & 3: Touching the Earth Lightly. Fig. 4: Cooke 2013.



Tariq Toffa's picture

Surabaya illustrates an impressive array of measures to cope with flooding. But at the same time this also indicates the converse, that these are probably urgently required coping mechanisms in emergency situations, since it is much more than areas of poverty that are affected but even the central city itself. I am sure that there are many lessons to learn from though, for other coastal cities will increasingly be looking for answers to similar questions.

In South Africa, the link between urbanization on unsuitable land, poverty, & disaster, are beginning to highlight such relatively new issues. In particular, greater effectiveness through cooperation, & incentives for larger developments could make an impact to the general status quo.

An important question regarding what appears to be targeted, engineered interventions to meet a specific critical need, is whether such investment can simultaneously be used as a platform for addressing other important needs. This is partly what I meant by ‘the big & the small’, designing for both ‘disaster & dwelling’; not only seeking to preserve cities in their current (unsustainable) form for as long as possible, but facilitating other opportunities to also emerge. Emergency measures though typically tend toward the former rather than the latter, as more holistic approaches usually entail greater time and complexity.

Carlin Carr's picture

Tariq, I like the terms you've coined here, and you have a good point. It seems to me that the trash issue is Surabaya is one of those issues that can a double impact--developing a more sustainable, proactive approach to dealing with garbage so it doesn't end up clogging drains but at the same time work on a waste management plan for the city that involves the active participation of households.

What amazes me about this time of year in India--well, at least in Mumbai--is that the rains are about to start in less than a week and it seems that all the prep work for the annual monsoon is done in the few scorching hot weeks before. The entire city feels like its being patched up in a last-minute run to prevent disaster. Most main thoroughfares are being dug up and rebuilt, drains being dug out, etc. This all seems in stark opposition to what is happening in Surabaya--a coordinated, planned effort that has a vision. What's most impressive, though, is that this vision involves awareness with the community, since their participation is necessary for successful implementation.

Olatawura Ladipo-Ajayi's picture

Tariq's statement that continually changing urban realities which need an appreciation of their complexities to create more holistic and sustainable approaches, and the (political) will for their implementation resonates with me. A lot of city officials attempt different solutions to urban problems, with flooding as seen in the cities, its better building plans like on stilts is Cape Town or better drainage systems in Lagos, and better waste management to avoid blocking of drains in Bangalore and Lagos. The efforts cannot be denied but the political will to sustain such efforts needs to be questioned.

Without sustained political will, the efforts and systems put in place to contain these disasters will crumble. If there is any credit to global warming these disasters will only get worse. Trial projects and installing some drains will only go so far in protecting the people.

While political will is definitely important, I find that Bangalore's experience highlights another factor-the residents reluctance in embracing systems. This factor also affects political will and it is important to note that the residents play a part. While the governemnt can do more, so can the people to solve urban problems and aid development as shown in Surabaya.

widya anggraini's picture

I think we all agree that collaboration between government and community will result positive impact in city life and the issue of sustainability of this collaboration is also a challenge, because what’s the guarantee that the next government will continue similar policy as Wura stated. However, I think civil society organization now in big cities in Indonesia are getting better in doing policy campaign and advocacy and in some cases they are able to influence policy through creative and peaceful way.

The case of Bangalore also interest me as I understand very well that creating programs without enough preparations from government side such as infrastructure in term of human capacity and supporting system then it would be a failure. Furthermore, I think involving beneficiaries from the start will improve the sense of belonging so that resistance can be lessening. Often, government decides and designs a program centrally and involves only few groups that might be related or impacted. Hence, resistance is always there and many resources are being waste for an unsuccessful program.

An important article, well written. The corrections refer to the factors that you say are not addressed by blocking-out - namely: open space encroachment, and the reduced numbers of people who can be accommodated in the new settlement layout. Both are not the case. In all the blocking-out project that we have done there have been no encroachment on open space that was created. Secondly a very important principle of blocking-out is that all residents and households who were part of the settlement will be accommodated in the new layout. In some instances families who lived together even get the option of living in separate dwellings thereby increasing the number of dwellings in the settlement - provided this is accepted by the community and the local officials.

Another key ingredient to the blocking-out agenda is that it is a process that is community led, designed and implemented. This ensures ownership, ensures no encroachment of open spaces and ensures that space is opened for dialogue with the state for the provision of basic services all of which ideally should lead to tenure security. That's the broader aim.

Tariq Toffa's picture

Thank you Andy for your comment & for engaging a debate, which is warmly welcomed & appreciated. (Andy is the founder of Cape Town based NGO Ikhayalami). My article is brief, sketching out some of the basic extant approaches to upgrading & disaster management, & some of their contributions & limitations, & greater detail thereof is perhaps unjustly brief in some instances. Thus, allow me to respond to the points you raise in a bit more detail which it deserves.


The ‘blocking-out’ model—conceptually (though not in name)—is not entirely new; which enables us to speak about it with at least a little bit of hindsight. Almost a decade ago, in 2005, following a devastating fire in the Joe Slovo informal settlement in Langa, Cape Town, City authorities carefully managed the rebuilding of shacks by residents to ensure adequate gaps between them. However, this hardly lasted for a few months before residents gradually started expanding their structures again & the reduced numbers of residents increased again.

‘Blocking-out’ in its current form is a significant improvement upon this precedent. The recent buy-in of this model by the City & its installing of toilets within the open space that the layouts create, for example, rather than on the periphery of settlements is a significant achievement to the overall integrity & functionality of the environment; as is ensuring that removals do not occur in order to realize the new layouts.

However, even if there has thus far been no further growth after the completed ‘blocking-out’ projects, many decades more of growth & change in informal settlements in South Africa gives us no reason to assume that this would suddenly now cease to be the case. The upgraded steel sheet structures of up to about 20 m² only in ‘blocking-out’ projects also can surely not be regarded as a long term solution against natural growth. If past history, current urbanization, & continuing poverty is anything to go by, I question whether it is only a matter of time before people’s needs outweigh the preservation of neatly ordered spaces.


I therefore believe that our path should not be about arriving at a solution which makes future growth undesirable, but rather about how to allow this to occur in a more managed way (that prevents disasters) & in a more sustainable way (that enables human and social development, growth, and capacity building). Allowing for even what was not immediately planned for, & in planning for an open system which allows for currently unforeseen potential, was also a part of what the theorist Lefebvre called ‘the right to the city’. Joining imagination & creativity (because architecture is more than numbers & statistics) with ethics & social responsibility in this way also enables a kind of autonomy to communities & individuals, which can reach far beyond a given project.

For this reason I contrasted the ‘blocking-out’ model with an unrealized proposal by Prof. Cooke which hones in on this particular aspect of the potentiality of ‘informality’. This is not to suggest that the latter proposal is better than the former in any way, but to highlight the different strengths & weaknesses of different approaches. Partnering with or involving communities (which greatly enhances the durability of any project), it must also be said, without in any way underestimating its value, is no substitute for underscoring such inbuilt capacity-building potentials of architecture.


As a final word, I think it is worth reminding ourselves exactly what the purpose of architectural criticism is, particularly in a context of poverty & ‘informality’. While writing hardly makes a difference in real terms for real situations on the ground, it does affect the project of architecture; & that’s its bigger picture. Critique is therefore about much more than simply criticizing a given project (which we all hate), but it is criticismʼs role to assess and promote the positive effects architecture can bring to a community, society and the wider world. Architecture in an unequal world also needs this self-criticism, because I doubt that design interventions would adequately learn from themselves unless there was writing about it afterwards.

A quantitative criticism also negotiates and co-evolves with the work it critiques. It is not separate or removed. It expands the brief of the work it critiques. It is, if you like, the other arm of architecture; without either of which the other would be the poorer. (Critique can also be critiqued, & this also should be welcomed). Criticism that is fair should therefore not be seen as an unwelcome affront, but as an aspect of architecture that is actually essential. And the higher the stakes & needs, the greater is its role & value.

Tariq Toffa
URB.im (Cape Town, Jhb Community Manager)
SHiFT (shift.org.za)
University of Johannesburg, Architecture

Jorge Bela's picture

Cities are often built in places that are perfect for them. But some of the factors that are initially a blessing become a major problem once cities grow, without little control. Bogotá is a great example: located in the hills just above a wonderful, sprawling savannah with meandering rivers, endless water supply and perfect weather. As the city invaded the savannah, channeled the rivers, and neglected drainage, things turned ugly, and much of the city floods regularly. The Bogotá river leaves the city 100% dead, and as one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

Un fortunately, the infrastructure needed to fix these problems is extremely costly, and gives little political reward. Politicians find it difficult to sell a multi-billion investment in an efficient drainage system, for example. Furthermore, the solutions depends not only on one administration, but on an array of agencies, local governments, and even private institutions.

Local communities can do little to tackle these problems, but they can, as this weeks articles point out, build defensively to mitigate the effects of flooding, or fire and other disasters. Climate change and chaotic growth will make things much worse before they get better, thus the need to build defensively, but the real solution can only come from major infrastructure approaches undertaken by the authorities. Major does not necessarily mean expensive. This is not to negate the need to get local communities involved in the process.

In Colombia, due to fluctuations in surface temperatures in the Pacific, which results in El Niño and La Niña phenomena, heavy rains alternate with acute draught periods. La Niña immediatelly results in flooding in Bogotá, while El Niño (current situation) causes widespread fires. Unfortunatelly, there is no way to control these fires as there are not sufficient resources to tackle this problem.

Diana Mitlin's picture

Dear Tariq

I found this article really interesting. Are you able to provide more information on the costs of each of these improvements?

Thanks, Diana

Tariq Toffa's picture

Hi Diana.

Thanks for raising this. The issue of costs is critical.

Post-fire, the City provides a basic “starter kit” (poles, steel sheets, nails, etc.), disaster relief (food, blankets, etc.), & a R1,200 (O.120 USD) grant/payment to fire victims.

The TEL ‘lighthouse’ project was built within a R50,000 (5,000 USD) budget provided by the City. This was done by buying the materials from local hardware shops at retail rates. Only the magnesium insulation used was imported.

As for the SDI / Ikhayalami projects, there is no clear information available on the Ikhayalami website to indicate the financial aspect of the products, services, stakeholders & beneficiaries involved. This is a key omission, for the funding & beneficiary model is no less important than the work on the ground. I hope Andy will take this up.

Tariq Toffa
URB.im (Cape Town, Jhb Community Manager)
SHiFT (shift.org.za)
University of Johannesburg, Architecture

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