Siblings paddling to school

Collaboration in informal settlements: tackling flooding with a local perspective

In most developing countries, solid waste management is a significant challenge, especially in urban slums and other informal settlements.
March 05, 2018

It is typically a neglected aspect of urban planning and in most instances, access to basic urban services such as solid waste collection and management is extremely limited. This has heavily contributed to the impact of urban flooding by blocking drainage, increasing debris, and harbouring disease vectors.

Listening to local voices is becoming increasingly important in the urban planning process. Adaptation programs must be implemented with general local economic development programs. Collaborative governance and integrated management can help to effectively address the complexities of urban issues and provide locally-relevant solutions that will strengthen their connectivity. This requires long-term planning and research investment.   

One such initiative is an IDRC-funded, South Africa-based project that works with poor local communities to tackle inland flood risks in informal settlements. The project studied the power of “collaborative governance” to understand and support the systems influencing decision-making and urban planning related to inland flooding and rising sea levels in the city. 

In Cape Town, a long history of apartheid and unequal development have driven poor households to develop into slums on low-lying, low-value areas on the outskirts of the city. More than 8,000 households, comprising 38,000 residents, are impacted by flooding — particularly in Cape Town’s winter months, when coastal storm surges and rising sea levels damage public infrastructure and private property.

While flood-risk management is not typically observed through a governance lens, effective policies can boost the resilience of vulnerable urban areas. The problem? This remains a complex, difficult, and time-consuming process, but one that is necessary for planning processes to be truly inclusive and accessible.

Over the course of the project, efforts were made to understand the current governance context in order to engage in further collaboration between inhabitants of the slums and government officials. The initiative used a number of tools and platforms to engage the community and encourage dialogue between slum residents and government officials. These included theatre performances and local radio programs, as well as town hall meetings and workshops. At the same time, the project facilitated the signing of formal agreements between the city and community-elected leaders to ensure continuity and recognize each party’s commitment.

A key lesson was the difficulty in strengthening community collaboration. It is important for various actors to value this collaboration, even if it is a time-consuming and sensitive process. Capacity building played an important role in the consolidation of this partnership; in fact, a variety of slum residents have not only gained insights into matters of governance, climate change, and flooding, but they have also developed knowledge of research processes, which enabled them to participate in discussions about identifying solutions to practical problems.

On the government side, Cape Town’s officials have learned to adopt a more holistic approach to flooding, and this project has also informed the development of an Integrated Coastal Management policy for the city.