Jacob Scherr, Director, Global Strategy & Advocacy, Washington, DC

Millions of people living in the shantytowns of the developing world’s mega-cities will be among the most-vulnerable groups feeling the brunt of climate change in the coming decades, according to a  just-released report from UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This new technical study predicts that tidal surges, heat waves and water shortages could hit Manila, Mumbai and over 100 other such cities in developing nations, precipitating potential disease epidemics, climate experts say.  Sarah Glazer wrote this report on her recent conversation with Sheela Patel, chair of Slum Dwellers International, about climate change and the urban poor :

In the Nairobi slum of Mukuru, women are scared to go to the bush at night to urinate for fear they will be raped. So they use the narrow spaces between the slum’s huts. When it rains, the water mixes with the sewage running down the narrow alleys and floods people’s homes, setting off deadly cholera outbreaks.

The lack of sanitation in Mukuru stems partly from the fact that the land is privately owned, although no one is sure who owns it, and therefore outside the government’s jurisdiction. For many of the 800,000 slum dwellers, this has been their home for 15 years or more, yet they face the threat of eviction as Nairobi land values rise.

 “We are here, and then that person - after 40 or 30 or 50 years - they are claiming back the land,” said Doris Museti, who lives in Mukuru. “Imagine you have a place, your home – how can a person come to build in your home? You have grandchildren here. … Where do we go?”  

 Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Patel.JPGSlum dwellers’ invisibility to governments and their lack of security over land tenure become even greater threats during the extreme weather disasters set off by climate change, according to Sheela Patel, chair of Slum Dwellers International, a network of slum dwellers’ organizations in 33 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

I sat down recently in London with Patel, who had flown in from Mumbai to appear on a panel on how climate change is affecting the world’s poorest.

When the 2004 tsunami hit the coast of India, Patel’s organization investigated which of their members had been affected: “We found that all of them were squatters living near the sea, and the government was not ready to give them any relief because they had no documented evidence of having land. But it was very clear to us if they did not go and repossess that land, they would lose everything completely,” says Patel, whose organization helped them to rebuild. Both in India and Sri Lanka, says Patel, “You have a nation-state that doesn’t deal with the most vulnerable.”

In the Philippines, the super-typhoon Haiyan last November caused the loss of one million homes, and the city of Manila will be among the hardest-hit by stronger typhoons, droughts and more intestinal and mosquito-borne diseases as temperatures, already stifling at night, continue to rise, according to the UN’s climate change science panel.

Inhabitants of Philippine slums vulnerable to flooding recently took matters into their own hands and made a deal with the municipal governments. They told city government officials they would provide maps of their dwellings so the city could issue an early warning of an impending flood, permitting them to evacuate in time.

Increasingly, Patel says, slum organizations are coming up with creative ways of proving that their members had established homes even after all traces of their habitation have been wiped out by a storm surge—assembling documents like a son’s immunization records from a local health clinic or a daughter’s registration at a local school.

Slum dwellers are also using Google maps and mobile GPS devices to help map their settlements. In Cuttack, an Indian city between two rivers that is prone to flooding, a federation of women’s savings groups recently used hand-held GPS devices to map all 331 of the informal slum settlements. Their accurate digital maps of the slum settlements now make it possible for the government to identify dwellings at flood risk on riverbeds and to contact local leaders in advance of flooding. The availability of maps also influenced the use of a government fund to upgrade the slums.

Slum Dwellers International has been sending local community organizers, who have marshaled this kind of information to advocate improved slum conditions, across national borders to lend their expertise. “There’s nothing more powerful than a leader from one country teaching one from another country how to get water, toilets, land from the municipality,” Patel says.

More cities in India are starting to acknowledge these informal settlements because of their organization and sheer size: More than 60 percent of Mumbai’s inhabitants live in informal shanty towns, most with no sanitation, Patel tells me. But “It’s not a cushy love affair” with local governments, she emphasizes. Local politicians usually don’t want to acknowledge the existence of such slums in the first place, according to Patel, “because if they acknowledge them, they have to do something about it.”

How do organizations like Patel’s convince governments that slum dwellers are not just a nuisance but actually an asset to their city?

If you go to any third world city, “people like you and me could not live without the person who drops your newspaper, brings your milk, cleans your street”—and all of them live in informal slums, Patel points out.

Historically, she notes, international organizations and governments have directed their anti-poverty efforts at people living in the countryside. “I always say, the rural poor are virtuous—they’re far away,” says Patel with a smile, “The urban poor are in your face.” Yet that conventional approach fails to recognize that more than half of the world’s population, including many of its poorest, will soon be living in cities.

Increased migration and armed conflicts could result from future climate change-induced disasters like food shortages, the UN report warns, suggesting even more people flooding into cities. As Patel well knows, “We tell governments, ‘If you don’t know how to deal with people in cities now, God help you in the next 25 years, when more are going to come—and faster-- in an energy-hungry world and you’re not equipped for it.’”