ECC Platform Library


Climate Change Can be Seen Everywhere in Slums

12 February, 2019
Lou del Bello, URBANET

shutterstock, Soweto, South Africa, slum, urban

shutterstock, Soweto, South Africa, slum, urban
Shacks of Soweto in Johannesburg, South Africa. | © Brian S./Shutterstock

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 this video John de Boer, Managing Director of the The SecDev Group, it needs out-of-the-box thinking to respond to urgent climate risks affecting poor communities in cities.

“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.”


[This article originally appeared on]



ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Climate Diplomacy

Global Issues


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

Read more

Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

Read more


Sorry, no description found.

Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

Read more

Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

Read more


Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

Read more


Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

Read more


The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

Read more

Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

Read more


Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

Read more


Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

Read more

Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

Read more

Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

Read more

Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

Read more


Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

Read more



The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

Read more

Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

Read more


As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

Read more

Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

Read more

Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

Read more

North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

Read more

Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

Read more

South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

Read more

Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

Read more