Moving beyond exposure: Addressing climate-related risks in informal coastal settlements

Following our webinar with UNRISD, contributors Dunja Krause, Bina Desai and David Dodman take a closer look at some of the questions raised on urban disaster risk and displacement.

What risks are people in informal coastal settlements facing in their day-to-day lives and how can we properly address them? Our webinar introduced the themes of urban disaster risk and displacement and discussed policy pathways for reducing risk and building resilience in informal settlements.

We are happy that our audience was very engaged and took part in a lively discussion with speakers Bina Desai (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre) and David Dodman (International Institute for Environment and Development) but it meant that we did not have enough time to address all questions we received during the event. This text addresses the additional issues that were brought up.

Disaster and displacement impacts in coastal areas

The IDMC Global Report on Internal Displacement gives an overview of disaster-induced displacements that have occurred each year. In 2017, 18.8 million people were displaced due to disasters, accounting for 61% of all new internal displacements. At the moment, the data cannot be disaggregated into coastal versus inland displacement, but we do see that some of the largest disaster displacement events were linked to hurricanes and typhoons that primarily affect coastal areas. There is quite some overlap in the exposure of coastal cities and island populations, as many island settlements along the coastlines would be considered coastal cities. The number of people affected is likely to grow. Estimates suggest that more than 1 billion people will live in the low elevation coastal zone by 2050.

Beyond the risks to lives and livelihoods, disasters and displacement can have a range of mental health effects and impact on people’s emotions and beliefs.

Additional resources on mental health impacts of disasters: 

Informality, risks and resettlement

In the developing world, much of the urbanization in coastal areas is happening informally. During the webinar, David Dodman highlighted the specific vulnerabilities and risks people in informal settlements are facing from both climate change and climate change responses. He elaborated on the potential of measures such as strengthening livelihoods and assets, social protection and income generation to contribute to risk reduction. For low-income urban residents, relocation is usually seen as a last resort adaptation option and may be opposed by many people regardless of their level of exposure to flooding and other climate-related risks, as it has huge impacts on their lives. While it can not always be avoided, in-situ adaptation and upgrading of settlements can often be more suitable and accepted forms of risk reduction, at least in the short and medium term. Integrated policy solutions that reduce poverty and inequalities and provide people with access to social protection, health care, education, decent work etc. can tackle people’s vulnerability.

Examples from Kenya and Indonesia demonstrate some of the ways in which relocation can be done in a more positive way when there is close engagement between citizens and the government, sufficient information on the new site and appropriate compensation and options for the affected residents. Financing urban upgrading and relocation can be difficult, in particular when the motive behind vacating land is not economic but rather disaster risk reduction. There are successful examples of both upgrading and relocation which blend funds from different public and private sources, including community savings. This involves the people who are most affected by the plan in the decision-making process and increases their ownership and acceptance of the project, even if their share of funds is relatively small compared to the overall amount needed.

Managed relocation can lead to a shift in people’s risk profile rather than a net risk reduction, however. This can be the case when relocation reduces hazard exposure and gives people access to better housing and services, but leads to a loss of social networks and income sources. Community involvement and active participation of affected populations is key for successful management of relocation which needs to recognize people’s needs and priorities. A participatory assessment of both hazard-dependent and hazard-independent risks and vulnerabilities can inform appropriate relocation plans. Consultation and engagement of people at every stage is also important to build trust and overcome people’s opposition to relocation. Efforts towards more inclusive and just urban governance that recognizes residents of informal settlements as legitimate citizens can support successful upgrading and relocation (see Satterthwaite et al. 2018). Resettlement and upgrading plans should work with and for the people to avoid criminalization and forced eviction of residents.

Additional resources on building resilience in informal settlements*: 

*At UNRISD; we have not yet focused on a specific assessment of the role of the social and solidarity economy (SSE) in addressing climate-related risks of coastal wetlanders, but many of the more successful community-driven examples operate on SSE principles of cooperation, solidarity and democratic self-management and could be considered SSE. A more systematic assessment would be needed, however, in order to evaluate the role of SSE-based interventions and to analyse the benefits of SSE in addressing climate-related risks.

Equity and justice in adaptation

Ultimately, addressing climate-related risks in informal coastal settlements in a way that reduces not only exposure but also vulnerabilities requires a people-centred and justice-focused approach to adaptation. This requires a shift towards more inclusive urban governance and the recognition of informal urban residents as citizens (with rights) and important contributors to the local economy. There are both ethical and more practical reasons to focus on rights and justice when aiming to build resilience. As Ziervogel et al. (2017) point out, beyond the intrinsic value that rights and justice present, they can also advance the achievement of further goals because a recognized entitlement increases access to, for example, social protection. In a comparative assessment of how adaptation planning measures impacted on equity in eight cities around the world, Anguelovski et al. (2016) showcase the disproportionate impacts that adaptation planning can have on low-income and informal neighbourhoods, in particular as a result of displacement and gentrification. They further highlight that in addition to these direct impacts, adaptation planning often fails low-income areas when it prioritizes the protection of economically valuable areas at the expense of already underserved areas.

In some cases, people are forcibly removed from their homes in the name of environmental protection or risk reduction. Adopting a rights-based approach to upgrading and relocation that includes people in the decision-making process and ensures that their rights are recognized and fulfilled can reduce negative social impact and lead to more sustainable outcomes.

View Bina Desai’s slides

View David Dodman’s slides

Skip to content