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Transforming lives through informal settlement revitalisation

Urban informal settlement in Fiji
Urban informal settlement in Fiji.

CRC for Water Sensitive Cities

All around the world, urban water systems are facing the pressures of climate change and urban expansion. Cities are experiencing droughts, floods, and degrading waterways. Currently 2.3 billion people globally lack basic sanitation and more than one billion of those are living in urban informal settlements.

Monash Sustainable Development Institute, together with major partners Asian Development Bank and the Wellcome Trust, have committed to a five-year project called RISE – Revitalisation of Informal Settlements and their Environments - that will significantly advance human health and wellbeing in informal settlements by transforming water infrastructure, water management, and sanitation practices.

Drawing on expertise across public health, engineering, urban design, ecology, economics and social science, the RISE project will revitalise 24 informal settlements in Indonesia and Fiji.

We speak with project director Professor Rebekah Brown and Professor Karin Leder about the impact this project will have.

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How lives can be improved by revitalising informal settlements and their environments. Supplied: Monash University

What is the impact of poor sanitation on impoverished communities such as those living in informal settlements?

Karin: There is surprisingly little data coming out of informal settlements. What we do see though is poor gastrointestinal health, including acute episodes of diarrhoea and chronic exposure to pathogens from the environment which leads to intestinal inflammation, poor absorption of nutrients, and impaired growth in children.

Informal settlements are also prone to flooding and water stagnation, which poses health risks from mosquito-borne infections such as dengue fever and malaria. The humid environment can cause many kinds of skin conditions and skin infections, and people living in close quarters can expedite the spread of respiratory infections.

We also see exposure to ‘immersion diseases’ which are conditions resulting from walking through water bodies such as rivers, streams or through mud.

How does this project differ from other slum revitalisation projects?

Rebekah: The traditional way of revitalising an informal settlement is moving entire communities out of their dwellings simultaneously and rehoming into 1960’s style apartment blocks: it’s very expensive, entire communities are displaced all at once and there tends to be a lack of community engagement during the process.  

Our project model is more incremental and tailored to each site and community.

We are very fortunate that we have major partners in the Asian Development Bank and the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities that have these long term relationships with local communities and government [in] the areas we will be working in. We are establishing relationships with local universities and we will also be appointing local, in-country project managers and assessment officers who understand local norms.

People have been wanting another solution to empower communities, in addition to goodwill. Traditionally there hasn't been the technical solutions to the health and environment issues these communities face, but this project has the potential to offer both. $US11billion is spent per year on global aid, and there is an incredible opportunity for this project to inform current expenditure.

Would you expect to see a flow-on improvement of employment opportunities and/or subsistence farming opportunities for those living in informal settlements as a result of the project?

Rebekah: If you think about the process of poverty alleviation, it’s about access to improving prosperity. While the RISE project isn’t specifically a poverty alleviation project, what we know is if communities don’t have reliable sanitation, water supply, protection from sea level rise and live in highly contaminated environments, it is incredibly difficult to access prosperity when you’re dealing with these issues daily.

One of the solutions will be to provide an alternate water source for urban agriculture. We notice that in some of these informal settlements, people are growing food in their own dwellings. The fact that we will be providing an additional source of water on site might mean a local opportunity to produce more food than otherwise would have been possible.

Just the intervention alone, the access to new ideas, has the potential to develop people’s entrepreneurial spirit. I have huge faith in these communities and the entrepreneurship of people.

Led by Monash Sustainable Development Institute, the project is proudly supported by the following partners:

  • Asian Development Bank
  • Co-operative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities
  • Stanford University
  • Emory University
  • University of Melbourne
  • World Health Organisation
  • Oxfam
  • WaterAid

Project Investigators from five Monash University Faculties:

  • Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences
  • Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture
  • Faculty of Science
  • Monash Business School
  • Faculty of Engineering

This material was produced by Monash University.