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Transforming lives through slum revitalisation

Informal settlement, Fiji
The five-year project will significantly advance human health and wellbeing in Fijian urban informal settlements.

Supplied: 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 that will significantly advance human health and wellbeing in slums – or 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 project will revitalise 24 informal settlements in Indonesia and Fiji.

We spoke with Project Director Professor Rebekah Brown and Professor Karin Leder about the impact this project will have.

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.

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 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 rivers, streams or through mud.

Urban informal settlement in Indonesia
Urban informal settlement in Indonesia.

Supplied: CRC for Water Sensitive Cities

What is the impact on women and children living in informal settlements?

Rebekah: We know that there is a challenge in terms of violence against girls and women in informal settlements. There is a whole range of reasons for this. One particular aspect is that because there are no toilets in the home, communities utilise open defecation sites.  There is a trend that girls and women wait [for] the privacy of night to go outside to toilet, and in these poorly lit sites, it makes them particularly vulnerable.

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 60’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 will be working with the communities to understand their needs and wants, we will strengthen some dwellings, fix or replace others that are structurally unsound.

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.

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: While the project isn’t specifically a poverty alleviation project, we anticipate the solutions that we are trialling will elevate the community to then be able to start addressing some of the next level of issues they need to face to improve their own prosperity.

One of the solutions will be to provide an alternate water source for urban agriculture. We notice that in some of these informal settlements, that 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.

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Water sensitive revitalisation in informal settlements (Supplied: Monash Sustainable Development Institute)

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.