Envisioning Better Slums

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

More than 900 million people – almost a sixth of the world’s population – now live in urban slums (UN). Improving conditions for these people is a critical Millennium Development Goal target. And the scale of the problem is vast: this year half the world’s population will live in cities, and already in developing countries 43 per cent of urban dwellers live in slums. In the least-developed countries the figure is 78 per cent.

The UN has estimated it will take US$18 billion a year to improve living conditions for these people – and most of it will have to come from the residents themselves.

An essential route to improving the situation is to give people living in slums the dignity and respect they deserve as human beings. Initiatives across the South seek to do this and turn the situation on its head: seeing slum dwellers as a valuable asset, not an urban blight.

The concept of ‘slum networking’ has been developed by Indian engineer Himanshu Parikh of Ahmedabad , a winner of the Aga Khan award for architecture. He starts from the point of believing there is no need for slum conditions to exist in India, but that slums do not need to be moved, just upgraded; and that good change can happen quickly. He also sees the residents’ involvement and financial contribution as critical to the sustainability of any improvements. His approach has already helped one million people overall, including 8,703 families (43,515 people) in Ahmedabad in 41 slum communities.

Slum networking does not depend on aid funds but is a self-reliant approach, in which residents make a partnership with private suppliers to get access to the most important services first: clean water and hygiene and sanitation.

Parikh’s approach involves providing channels for sewage, water supply and roadways in existing slum areas by exploiting the natural topography and pattern of development to provide the new infrastructure.

Parikh makes a detailed survey plan of the existing houses and divides them into groups based on the quality of construction. If they are of reasonable quality, they are left in place. Where possible, slum dwellers are allowed to buy the land they are squatting on. By buying the land, the owner now has a direct stake in its development.

“Working inside out, i.e. starting with quality infrastructure in the poor areas and working outwards to produce larger networks for the city or village, not only integrates the two levels, but actually produces far cheaper infrastructure at both levels,” Parikh told Architecture Week magazine.

In the Indian city of Indore, 181 slums were networked, giving the city 360 kilometres of new roads, 300 kilometres of new sewer lines, 240 kilometres of new water lines, 120 community halls and 120,000 trees. This transformed the two local rivers from open sewers back to water. According to the World Bank, the incidence of fatal water diseases fell by 90 per cent.

“No project for their rehabilitation could be successful until they were involved as the capital partners,” Parikh told India’s The Tribune. Upgrading “the civic amenities, including sewerage, roads and water supply, was the need of the hour for better living conditions of the slum dwellers.”

Another initiative in Bangladesh is bringing first-rate healthcare to the country’s water-logged slum dwellers. They live in areas called ‘chars’ — effectively stranded islands surrounded by rivers, plagued by frequent flooding and physically cut-off from the country’s transport and infrastructure networks. Located in northern Bangladesh’s Jamuna river regions of Gaibandha, Kurigram and Jamalpu, these areas are very poor and overlooked by most government and foreign aid programmes. The fact the islands shift around has made it difficult for much help to reach the people.

Bangladesh also has a severe shortage of doctors: there are 12,500 people per doctor, compared to 2,000 in Pakistan.

But a hospital ship run by the Friendship NGO (funded by private companies and NGOs) now brings healthcare to 4 million people, treating everything from cataracts to skin infections. It sees between 200 to 250 patients a day aboard a converted former river barge. Called the Lifebuoy Friendship Hospital because of its sponsorship by Lever Brothers Bangladesh Ltd. — makers of Lifebuoy soap — it cruises the river Brammaptura, helping 172,000 people since it set sail six years ago.

“People of the area look forward eagerly to our arrival,” said Dr Feroza Khatun, a doctor on the hospital ship. Other doctors and surgeons are provided by NGOs from Sweden, the Netherlands and France.

The ship carries a team of two doctors and four nurses, who live on board. It provides a range of services, from basic healthcare and immunisations to minor surgery. The ship is fully equipped with modern facilities, including clinics, a pharmacy, a treatment room and an operating theatre. There is also a four-bed ward for short-term care, a pathology lab and store, x-ray unit and dark room and an electrocardiogram (ECG).

Stays in the individual ‘chars’ are usually from three weeks to two months. When it leaves, a satellite clinic continues to provide care until the next visit. “In our satellite programmes, we bring in professionals for health and rural social education, provide paramedical care, give special treatment for mother and child health, family planning and pregnancy hazards, child nutrition and identify the needs for secondary care interventions,” said executive director Runa Khan to Bangladesh’s Star Weekend Magazine

Started as a trial in 2001, the ship began full operations in 2002. It has been so successful, it is currently expanding by building new ships paid for by the Emirates Airline Foundation.

Resources

  • Shelter Associates: established by Indian architect Pratima Joshi, an NGO working on slum rehabilitation.
  • SPARC: one of the largest Indian NGOs working on housing and infrastructure issues for slum dwellers.
  • Improving the Lives of Slum Dwellers: published by the Millennium Project.
  • Slum TV: Based deep inside Nairobi’s largest slum, Mathare, they have been seeking out the stories of hope where international media only see violence and gloom.

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