“Climate Change Can be Seen Everywhere in Slums”

At COP24, India-based Sheela Patel from SPARC talked to Lou del Bello about how climate change affects people in informal settlements the most – and about strategies to address their special needs.

In 1984, in the bustling city of Mumbai, on the western coast of India, a young Sheela Patel took her first steps towards what a few decades later would become one of the most transformative anti-poverty movements in her country and beyond.

“For the first ten years after graduating I worked at a community centre which provided various services for the poor,” she tells me. “We raised a lot of money, and we found that we could do terrific things in terms of helping children, women, help young people to find jobs.”

But Patel soon realised that all their good work was for nothing when the people they were helping were evicted from the city’s pavement, where most were settling in makeshift homes. “It made me feel that, you know, you are happy to give services and money, but when the foundation of their lives, which is their home, is removed, you see no possibility to support them.”

While movement of people leaving rural life behind in search of a more prosperous future is one of the features of today’s megacities, it is not a new one. Since the 1970s, thousands have gathered in the outskirts of Mumbai, ending up homeless and disenfranchised. They are affected especially hard by climate change.

I sit down with Patel during the Climate and Development days, part of the COP24 climate talks in Katowice, Poland. She participated in a panel discussion that set out new strategies for cities to cope, and eventually thrive, under climate change. It explored insurance for natural disasters, how to improve local infrastructure with climate resilience in mind, and the unique challenges that people living informally face as the weather becomes unpredictable.

“We Can’t Expect Them to Conform to Our Idea of Sustainability”

Climate change resilience in slums, she says, cannot be built using the same tools we apply to other parts of our cities, and we cannot expect them to conform to our idea of sustainability. She smiles when someone in the audience asks about planting more trees to improve living standards of the residents. “They have other priorities – water, sanitation. Besides, slums are so dense, in no way you’d find the space to plant a tree.”

And yet, far from being a secondary issue, climate change “can be seen everywhere in slums”. Frequent flooding is one example: “All slums are in low-lying areas, so water doesn’t come from outside, it comes from underneath you,” Patel explains. “So how do you deal with that? One of the things that we are suggesting to everybody is to create [any type of] marker that will signal where the sea level stands, so when your house needs repair, you will know how to take care of it in time.” Simple things like this, she says, make a big difference.

An NGO Like No Other

After being left disappointed by her first experience with an anti-poverty organisation, and with little support from other local entities that didn’t want to challenge the administration, Patel founded the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, known as SPARC. Today, it is part of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, which comprises communities in about 70 cities in India across nine states.
The organisation works on issues ranging from housing to habitat in general, seeking to represent the challenges that poor people living in cities informally face.

What makes SPARC different from other NGOs that want to implement pre-designed projects on the ground, is its participatory approach. It not only empowers poor communities but teaches practitioners what people want and what works on the ground.

“You give yourself permission to be imperfect,” Patel says, “but you don’t give poor people the same right, so if they don’t come up with a fantastic solution [to improve their lives] they’re perceived as stupid.”

She highlights the double standards of a system that pours huge sums into meeting the taste and expectations of rich consumers, but that is unable to understand what the poor need and want. “When poor people make choices,” she explains, “they have to be very careful, because if they get it wrong, they have no fallback. So if you come to them with a brand new idea that they are completely unfamiliar with, that just won’t work.”

Clean cookstoves are one example: NGOs regularly distribute energy efficient models that recipients quickly abandon for old ones. Generally, the reason is that they don’t work in the first place, for example because they require expensive pellet when coal is cheaper and still widely available. When designing new models, Patel asks, “why don’t you talk to women in different cultures and ask them to cook on those stoves, and tell us what works and what doesn’t?”

Patel calls this idea ‘precedent setting’: “If you do something that is new and unprecedented, you first need understanding of what people want, and only then do you design and construct it. We’ve done this for housing, for sanitation, for water points.” SPARC members are then able to present their evidence-based designs to the administration, showing what people really want and are more likely to use.

“In Urban Areas, Identity Counts”

The need for better products and policies for those who live informally in cities is part of a larger problem: informality entails disenfranchisement. Not only are poor people not listened to, they often have no documents, no legal identity, and ultimately no rights in the eyes of the law.

“In urban areas, identity counts. You know, if you are not [recognised by the] system, that becomes a good excuse for the city to deny you your entitlements. So by first counting yourself, and counting the volume of people who are invisible, you produce a very important political statement,” she says. Together with the local communities, Patel has been rolling out successful mapping projects that capture a blueprint of the ever-changing informal settlements in India and beyond.

“First, we produce a physical address,” she explains. “Every house is counted and numbered, and the women draw each household on a map. Then, we create our own ID cards, we take a family picture, and that becomes a quasi-identity.” And there is more: The organisation has developed a list of 14 different documents that people can use to demonstrate their identity and their belonging to a certain place.

“You have to think strategically,” she smiles. “Any document that is given to you by the government is a formal document. So for example if I get an immunisation certificate for my child, or if I go to the hospital, or even if I get an eviction notice, it all counts as a formal document.” In ten years’ time, she says, an eviction notice will be an evidence that you’ve been living in that particular place.

With her network of NGOs, she offers trainings to communities all over the world, telling them to keep paper records of their lives, so they can access services and better defend their rights.

While this is a productive tool for now, Sheela Patel says that in the future cities will have to acknowledge “that large numbers of people live in cities informally, and will have to anticipate that more are coming.” Cities do need to guarantee everybody access to public services regardless of their housing status. Life in informal settlements is always going to be hard, she says, but “when you give everybody basic amenities and services, at least their hardship is not compounded by neglect.”

Lou del Bello

Lou Del Bello is a climate journalist who specialises in science and development issues. She is a COP veteran and has been following the work of the UN climate framework for more than five years.
Lou del Bello