The critical role of housing in climate adaptation

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Aerial view on damaged red single house roof after strong wind

One in three people lives in cities worldwide. WEF data shows that over 2.8 billion live in inadequate housing, including 1.1 billion in informal settlements or slums.

Over 1 billion lack reliable, safe, and affordable basic needs such as basic housing, running water, electricity, and sanitation. However, providing access to decent housing can improve their resilience to climate change.

Inadequate housing trends

Over half of the global population (57%) live in urban areas. By 2050, the urban population will grow by another 2.5 billion. Most of this growth (90%) is expected to occur in Asia and Africa, regions with very high climate vulnerability.

In low-income countries, 64% of urban residents live in slums or informal settlements, and this number is projected to grow as people migrate from rural areas to seek job opportunities.

Role of housing in building climate resilience

Climate action must start with housing because of its direct impact on people's health and livelihood.

A 2023 report from Habitat for Humanity explores the social and well-being benefits of providing access to adequate housing in informal settlements. It reveals that adequate housing has a positive correlation to the three dimensions of the Human Development Index: Income, health, and education. Providing sufficient housing can increase GDP by as much as 10.5%; it extends life expectancy by up to 4%, adding 2.4 years of life on average worldwide.

Globally, it avoids as many as 738,565 preventable deaths and increases the expected years of schooling in some countries by up to 28%. Overall, providing access to adequate housing in informal settlements could lead to a jump of up to 18 places in the HDI country ranking and a change in human development level from low to medium and high to very high.

With all the transformational benefits adequate housing offers in informal settlements, it is rarely discussed and often neglected as a solution to bolster climate resilience in international climate forums.

The WRI article highlights successful housing initiatives for informal settlers in developing countries.

Participatory Housing and Urban Development in Iloilo City, Philippines. The Homeless People's Federation of the Philippines, in partnership with civil society organisations and the government, provided housing development, relocation and disaster rehabilitation for nearly two-thirds of the city's 27,000 urban low-income families without resorting to forced evictions or distant relocations.

The government provided land within city limits, and voluntary organisations pooled their savings to lend to these informal settlers. The result was that 1,250 families were provided with new housing and greater access to employment opportunities, education, and healthcare facilities. This initiative in Iloilo City, Philippines, exemplifies how collaboration between government and civil society organisations can generate transformative results in the community.

An initiative by Habitat for Humanity provides critical water supply in Tanzania's Sangara village through innovative solutions, including a solar pumping system, prepaid meters, and a loan model. This is in collaboration with WaterAid Tanzania, UTT-MFI (a microfinance institution), eWATERpay, and Babati District Council.

The loan model provided residents with an affordable payment scheme. The money collected was reinvested in the community. Access to water saved residents several hours fetching water, allowed them to start small vegetable farms, and speed up brick laying to build new houses and improve sanitation.

Other initiatives include:

  • Building and retrofitting housing and infrastructure to be climate-resilient as projects in Bangladesh;
  • Engaging communities in disaster preparedness efforts as a program in Indonesia which saves money and lives as climate change intensifies natural disasters;
  • Training women in informal settlements in India on how to combat extreme heat using sustainable solutions; and,
  • Early warning systems were installed in flood-prone areas, giving low-income and high-flood-risk areas sufficient time to prepare or evacuate.

In African countries and cities like Nairobi, Zimbabwe, and Uganda, international organisations have collaborated to provide access to energy in Nairobi's biggest slum areas, off-grid solar home systems in Zimbabwe, and solar street lights in the Ugandan cities of Kampala and Jinja. Access to energy has generated positive results for households in these areas. It has extended trading hours, created thousands of additional jobs, and provided skills and technical jobs to vulnerable youth.

The article in WEF provides the following suggestions on how nations could improve housing in their most vulnerable communities: First, governments and climate activists should recognise the centrality of adequate housing in building climate resilience and boosting overall community welfare. Second, prioritise the most vulnerable through incremental adaptation, and third, invest in greening informal settlements.

The article also highlights the work of a global platform, ShelterTech, an arm of Habitat for Humanity, a US NGO and non-profit that seeks to help build and improve homes for families of low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds. Habitat for Humanity was founded in 1976 by couple Millard and Linda Fuller, and as of 2023, the organisation operates in more than 70 countries.

ShelterTech puts entrepreneurs at the centre of a highly connected ecosystem of collaborators who share a passion for revolutionary solutions in affordable housing. They include investors, financial institutions, foundations, corporations, governments, peers, mentors, and technical experts.

Start Somewhere, one of the many non-profits supported by ShelterTech, is based in the informal settlement of Kibera, Kenya. Using locally sourced materials, it constructs unique building blocks called TwistBlocks, made of low-cost, reusable, fire-resistant cement to retrofit homes, making them safer and more weather-resistant.

Adequate housing, not just any form of shelter, is a basic human right. According to the United Nations, housing is a right, not a commodity. It is the basis of stability and security for an individual or family. The centre of our social, emotional, and sometimes economic lives, a home should be a sanctuary-a place to live in peace, security, and dignity.

The initiatives and projects highlighted in the WRI article to improve housing in informal settlements show that even the smallest steps can catalyze positive changes in people's lives.

Adequate housing increases people's well-being and motivates them to see opportunities to improve their lives, such as climate adaptation.

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