India: Slum dwellers in Himalayas especially climate vulnerable

India Climate Dialogue

By T.V. Padma

Climate change is likely to aggravate property loss, health hazards and income disruption in urban settlements in mountainous regions, and the poor are especially vulnerable

Climate change is predicted to have severe impacts on urban settlements in mountainous regions, especially on the livelihoods of the urban poor, new research shows.

A team of Indian scientists studied the vulnerability status and adaptation strategies of urban slum dwellers in Dehradun, a city in the foothills of the Himalayas, a region that is already witnessing a rise in average temperatures. The city’s size and geography make it a good proxy for other urban centres in the Indian Himalayas, they report.

The scientists, led by Rajiv Pandey from the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun, used a pre-tested questionnaire in face-to-face interviews with heads of 122 randomly selected households in four slum areas in the city.

The slum dwellers’ overall vulnerability was “very high, with very low absorptive and coping capacity for potential impacts of climate change,” the scientists report in Ecological Indicators. The slum dwellers’ vulnerability varied significantly with the kind of resources they had, and their decision-making capability, says the report titled Climate change vulnerability in urban slum communities: Investigating household adaptation and decision-making capacity in the Indian Himalaya.

It is important to address the capability and capacity of slum dwellers; and slum ecology while designing appropriate strategies for long-term disaster mitigation for urban slums, the report says.

Adaptive capacities

The scientists were especially interested in the adaptive capacity of mountain cities, given that climate change is predicted to have severe impacts on mountainous regions, including urban settlements, and livelihoods of the urban poor. “The adaptive capacity for marginalised groups is largely determined by household level resources and decision-making capacity,” the report points out.

They selected Dehradun in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas Dehradun has seen an increase of 0.54 degrees Celsius in average temperature in the past 20 years, the report says, citing previous research reports.

Dehradun has a population of 570,000, and a population density of 8,633 individuals per sq. km, according to the 2011 Indian census. The city has 102 slums, with 16,917 households, or 0.12 million people who form 26% of its population.

“These slums have minimal civic facilities, with irregular water supply, no drainage, frequent water logging and narrow unpaved roads. Open defecation is common among slum dwellers, causing spread of disease, and waste is dumped openly in the streets, with no organised solid waste collection,” the report says.

“Compounding relationships between the vulnerability of slum dwellers, a degraded environment and higher disaster risk were apparent and prevalent in the slum areas studied,” Pandey told “Poverty, with reliance on limited employability, generates pressure on household functioning and welfare. Poor natural and human conditions reduced the coping capability of the slum dwellers surveyed.”

“We found that vulnerability and coping strategy can be socially differentiated in terms of the decision-making capability and resource capacity of households,” Pandey said. “The level of vulnerability or risk was not similar in all slum households; the decision-deficient and resource-poor suffer disproportionately from the consequences of stresses such as climate change.”

According to him, increased understanding and awareness among members of these households would help them reduce the impacts of climate change by implementing precautionary measures. Moreover, better resource capacity would help them equip themselves for disaster responses.

Future coping strategies must include information about disaster responses, mitigation strategies and material support for overall household welfare, he said.

Growing urban slums

More than half the world’s population lives in urban areas and the proportion is predicted to grow to 66% by 2050, according to a 2014 UN-DESA report. The 2011 census report of India shows that 31% of Indian people live in urban areas and 17% of the urban people — or 65 million people — live in slums.

Slum dwellers typically lack durable housing, access to safe water, access to sanitation, sufficient living area and secure tenure, the report points out. With no proper infrastructure, urban slums suffer from the impacts of rapidly declining environmental and human health.

The problems of urban areas in India are projected to worsen, with projections of more intense short bursts of rain. India’s urban storm water infrastructure “will not be efficient to handle excess runoff leading to flooding,” cautions Vimal Mishra, associate professor at Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, whose team reported recently that short-duration and intense precipitation events such as mini-cloud bursts that can cause urban flooding within very short time are likely to increase in the future in India due to warming.

In urban slum areas in mountainous regions, climate change is projected to aggravate health hazards, property loss and disruption to incomes; and increase the residents’ vulnerability to climate change. Devising adaptive responses that strengthen climate change sustainability and urban resilience requires good knowledge of urban slums, the report says.

That said, in mountainous areas, urban pockets seem to fare better than rural areas with respect to ability to cope with climate change impacts, due to relatively better access to infrastructure.

previous study by Pandey’s team, published in 2017 in Ecological Indicators, found that people who lived close to urban centres in the mountains adapt better to the impacts of climate change, compared to people living in remote mountainous areas.

This study assessed vulnerability by looking at the five forms of capital leading to sustainable livelihood — human, natural, financial, social and physical capital. The study collected data from randomly selected households located away from district headquarters (ADH) and near district headquarters (NDH).

It found that while households away from district headquarters had higher human and natural capital, they were, nonetheless, more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than households near district headquarters.

Another study by his team, reported in 2014 in Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, also found that climate-related water vulnerability was higher for rural areas in the Himalayas, compared to urban areas.

Rural, forest-dependent, households are more vulnerable due to higher exposure to natural disasters, vulnerability of crops to changes in weather patterns, lower standards of health facilities and poorer infrastructure facilities.

Higher vulnerability

Saudamini Das, professor at the Institute for Economic Growth, Delhi University, who is studying the impact of climate change on urban poor, says that mountain people have fewer skills, and less scope to get information or arrange for finance, as they live in remote areas.

Urban poor are the most vulnerable to climate change, depending on where they are located, she says. Sometimes they take up a risk knowingly as they lack resource and put their life in danger on the hope of getting some extra income.

Pandey’s team’s study offers useful insights into vulnerability, sensitivity and adaptive capacity of urban slums, she adds. “There is not much research in India on the vulnerability of city slum dwellers to climate change.”

Das explains that vulnerability depends on a mix of four factors — exposure to a disaster, sensitivity, adaptive capacity and coping capacity of the people. Slums in mountainous regions differ from those in the plains, for example, with respect to the area exposed to a climate-related disaster. City slums in the plains are more spread out and hence have more area, which makes them less vulnerable to a weather disaster.

All the findings in Dehradun slums cannot be extrapolated to slums in the plains, Das told However, the findings on socio-economic vulnerability of the poorest of the poor are “very significant and can be extrapolated to plains too,” she added.

An important aspect of the slum dwellers, which the study has not addressed, says Das, is that “they work mostly in the informal sector, which makes them ineligible for most social security schemes such as insurance. Most urban slum dwellers do not own land or a home, and often work in poor working conditions which impacts their health. “There is a burden on them – job insecurity as well as poor living and working conditions.”

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