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May 6, 2015updated 26 Apr 2022 9:50am

Are natural disasters like the Nepal earthquake the Achilles heel of “slum upgrading”?

By Drew Reed

In Pune, India, just over 1,000 miles south of the epicentre of the earthquake that recently devastated Nepal, residents of the Yerwada slum recently implemented a project to rebuild their impoverished area into something better. “Where once there was an unplanned maze of narrow alleys, now there are spacious inner lanes,” Shruti Shiva writes at Citiscope. “Ramshackle homes made of bamboo sticks and asbestos sheets have been replaced by sturdier structures made of brick and mortar.”

The improvements made at Yerwada form part of a growing trend sweeping informal settlements around the world, known as slum upgrading. In essence, this trend rejects the older conventional wisdom – one that seems to be alive and well in India outside of Yerwada – that slums must be “cleared”, their makeshift buildings destroyed, their residents evicted and left to find somewhere else to live. 

Instead, slum upgrading proposes an idea that would seem obvious, yet nevertheless remains radical: use the resources of governments and other entities to maintain and improve on existing informal urbanisations in slums.

Lately, this idea has been gaining traction in several parts of the developing world. In Latin America, an area whose slums face some similar challenges to India, Justin McGuirk has chronicled a number of innovative projects that combine the resources of the state with the capacity of poorer citizens to build their own residences. (McGuirk explained his ideas to CityMetric here.) And this dynamic certainly seems to be at play in Yerwada: Shiva lists seven key points of the project, including involvement of women’s organisations, local construction workers, and robust local participation in designs.

But one element is conspicuously absent: disaster preparedness.

Disaster preparedness was also conspicuously absent in Nepal when it was hit by a 7.8 earthquake and several aftershocks nearly two weeks ago. The quake left a massive death toll, which recently reached 7,250 and is expected to keep growing. Gut-wrenching stories emerged from all across the country.

In the face of such devastation, one clear culprit has emerged: dangerously inadequate building standards. In an article for this very site last year, Nepalese journalist Rubeena Mahato warned that, “If an eight-magnitude earthquake were to rock Kathmandu today, the damage would be unprecedented.” A New York Times article last week condemned the increasing density and “perfunctory” enforcement of building codes in Kathmandu’s Gongabu neighbourhood for causing much of the carnage. The title of a Wired article on the quake stated, bluntly: “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do”.

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This wave of concern over lax building standards is completely understandable given the devastation of the earthquake. But it also represents a dilemma for cities coping with limited resources and rapidly expanding urban populations – one that does not appear to have an easy answer.

Stricter building codes will lead to greater safety, but they will also keep many buildings from getting built. This could leave cities like Kathmandu, whose population has exploded in the last decades, with many more residents who will be unable to find adequate housing at all. And, most of the time, it’s better to have a rickety house than no house at all.

Looser regulations, as well as programs such as slum upgrading that work with existing informal settlements, offer the possibility of providing larger quantities of desperately needed housing. They would also raise living standards by offering some basic services, and allow community participation. But when devastating earthquakes, floods, or other disasters strike, these developments are much more likely to turn deadly.

This isn’t to say that slum upgrading can’t be made to work in earthquake zones: in some cases, in fact, techniques developed for slum upgrading have already been applied to areas recovering from earthquakes.

Image: Elemental.

In Chile, the architectural firm Elemental pioneered a residential design for informal residents of the northern city of Iquique, where housing authorities built the homes’ basic structure and residents did the rest. That plan was so successful that Elemental used it again in the city of Constitución, for residents of conventional neighbourhoods, after the city was devastated by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in 2010.

Nevertheless, the Nepal earthquake is a wake-up call for all future slum upgrading schemes. For the governments or private groups organising these projects, it may be tempting to cut corners in fortifying these buildings against earthquakes and other disasters. But adequate disaster resistance is critical for the communities who will live there. And the additional costs that brings might mean that projects either can’t go ahead, or will put their residents in grave danger if they do.

With any luck, new technologies will allow for more economical disaster resistance techniques, and help to narrow the gap between affordable housing and adequate disaster safety. Even if they do, however, the gulf between supply and demand for housing in developing countries is so great that natural disasters may be wreaking havoc in informal settlements for decades to come.

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