Climate change and informal settlements on World Cities Day

On World Cities Day, Kate Hawkins and Lynda Keeru explore how climate change is affecting lives of people in informal settlements.

The 2021 theme of World Cities Day is Adapting Cities for Climate Resilience. ARISE is focused on supporting people in urban informal settlements to claim their rights, particularly the right to health.

Given that environmental changes wrought by climate change – such as floods, storms and extreme temperatures – are a major threat to health and wellbeing, health advocacy and calls for state accountability are likely to be intertwined with pressure to improve the environment for city dwellers more generally.

Vulnerability to ill-health in cities is not uniform. People in informal settlements tend to be more at risk. In these settlements, health problems are more prevalent, there are poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding and inadequate housing.

Climate change adds another layer of disadvantage. Flooding can cause the contamination of drinking  and standing water increasing the likelihood of water borne diseases and malaria. Cardiovascular and respiratory diseases are associated with rising temperatures as are exhaustion and rapid heartbeat among older people and those with medical conditions. Displacement due to flooding, mudslides or fires can lead to increased poverty and insecurity. This can exacerbate mental health problems, for example, stress and depression.

The view from Freetown

Speaking at the ‘COP26 Adaptation and Resilience Workshop: Climate Change and Global Health’, Joseph Macarthy provided a succinct overview of how climate change is shaping lives in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Over the last 15 years, residents of the capital have experienced significant changes in the climate and rapid urbanization. Residents are experiencing high levels of deforestation and the use of this land for habitation. Flooding is caused by high tide currents and sea level rise. The vulnerability of the city to climate change is also due to its geographical location.

Freetown, like many other cities, is characterized by informal settlements; with about 35 percent of the population living in the city. Climate change effects are associated mostly with old housing conditions in those places which lack secure tenure; experience poor water and sanitation problems; have inadequate access to healthcare; and are exposed to a lot of environmental hazards. Furthermore, informal settlements are often located in low-lying coastal areas, hilltops, hill slopes, wetlands and flood plains. Coastal and hillside slums are most adversely affected by climate change and people live-in constant fear of losing their life, homes, and properties.

These settlements experienced flooding in 2013, 2015 and 2017 which destroyed several homes, facilities and organizations. High temperature is also a recurrent problem which generally leads to water scarcity and attendant hygiene and water borne disease problems. Heavy rainfall contaminates fresh water supplies, creates breeding grounds for mosquitoes, presents risks of water borne diseases’; transmission damages homes and causes disruptions to public transport, access to health services and provision of medical and relief supplies. Strong winds also wiped out almost an entire informal settlement very recently this year. These winds also caused fire because electrical polls were blown down in Susan’s Bay. A 2017 mudslide and flooding in the Freetown area caused by intense rainfall led to about 1000 deaths and displaced over 3000 people and damaged millions of dollars’ worth of properties.

These settlements are the most affected as they are least capable of coping with these situations. Within informal settlements the most vulnerable are those who live hand-to-mouth through physical labour, children and pregnant women, older adults, persons with disabilities, and persons with pre-existing or chronic conditions.

In the light of these challenges communities are implementing measures to make their environment safer. These include:

  • Relocation to less vulnerable areas
  • Settlement upgrading by people and groups (e.g. drainage clearance, cleaning and protection of water holes, monthly cleaning, strengthening roof tops, construction of retaining walls)
  • Settlement upgrading by NGOs and the government etc. (e.g. provision of piped water, sanitation improvement and the provision of infrastructure, early warning mechanisms –through text messages, TV and social media and disaster preparedness).
  • The creation of Community Based Disaster Management Committees as first responders

From the local to the global

At the event Building resilience with equity – Perspectives from cities and neighbourhoods in the Global South’, Sheela Patel reflected on the role of national and global policy makers in mitigating climate change and associated harms. Communities, no matter how rigorous and committed they are, can only make limited change. The choices that cities and governments will make on climate issues, are going to determine whether the world cares for those who are poor and vulnerable or not.

We have to move from the project of modernity which has worked for a few people in the formal sector to one of sustainability that addresses minimum safety nets for all, particularly those in the informal sector. Data gathered in different cities during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that health, water supply, sanitation and food security systems are completely unprepared to address this present and upcoming challenges.

It is likely that climate change and challenges and calamities, such as water shortages, will drive more people to urban areas. Who is planning for the exponential growth of cities? Given the xenophobia present in many cities who will support climate migrants? These questions should be central to our work on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Moving forward: The role of research

Joseph argued that climate change issues exist alongside epidemics such as Ebola and COVID-19 and other protracted health conditions. However, levels of epidemiological vulnerability in the city and the drivers of vulnerability are still not well understood due to data paucity. There’s limited research on the health impact of climate change and the most effective adaptation methods required to inform policy making.

Sheela’s view is that the architecture of research needs to change and to become more responsible. There is a need for local disaggregated data to lead local programme design and investment. This will require meaningful partnership with communities for transformational change. This point was echoed by Joseph who believes we must prioritise community participation and co-production as a way of strengthening their role in decision-making and to act as channels for communicating their problems, with a particular focus on the most vulnerable.

In our ongoing work ARISE will continue to be led by our community partners to focus on the issues that really matter to them.


  • Sheela Patel is the founder of the Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC)
  • Joseph Macarthy is Director of Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC)