Hazards of Informal Settlements

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By Dr Moses Amweelo

Due to the continued heavy rains in the North, the population in the informal settlements is still facing ‘intestinal’ problems.

Oshakati town in the Oshana Region was hit by floods for the second time on February17, 2008. As a result, more people might have been relocated.

The informal settlements such as Oshoopala, Oneshila, Uupindi and Kandjengedi were severely affected. Perennial rivers running through Oshakati are in full flood, raising fears that the Kandjengedi Bridge might collapse.

This article is aimed at showing that communities living in many of the unplanned informal settlements, especially in urban areas, are facing several risks. This article is therefore intended to identify and analyze how these risks come about and suggest methods to prevent or alleviate such risks.

The methods and recommendations proposed may be used by the local authority in its effort to develop a viable and replicable community based squatter upgrading approach.

The need for clear and critical identification of possible risks in squatter informal settlements has been put into much consideration. It is therefore important at this juncture to study critically and draw attention to the risks situation and provide control measures.

During the past few decades informal settlements in urban centres have continued to grow in terms of population and size. Despite this growth, there has never been proportional improvement of provision of infrastructural services and proper environmental management. The provision of infrastructure services such as water supply, sanitation, electricity and wastewater disposal, are among the areas of great concern in human settlements. Failure to provide these services adequately may result in many of the most well known risks of rapid urbanization: threats to health, urban productivity and environmental quality.

Lack of adequate infrastructural services create critical equity problems resulting in high costs which mostly affect the urban poor who are the majority living in squatter areas in terms of poor health, low productivity, reduced incomes and poor quality of life. Deficiency of these infrastructural services manifests pollution, diseases and economic stagnation.

The most common benefits arising from improvements in infrastructure provision is better health, improved quality of life, time saving, reduced risks and other benefits of improved urban operations.

The impact of a settlement on the environment can be understood to have various components such as the built-up environment, transport systems, residential, commercial and industrial areas and institutional activities.

For instance the built-up environment of a particular settlement transforms its natural environment by precluding infiltration of precipitation, the impermeability and the magnitude and frequency of flood flows. This adverse environmental effect of poor urban storm water runoff is compounded by inadequate management of sewerage systems, liquid and solid wastes.

Squatter settlements are characterized by spontaneous increase of settlement developments, unplanned shelters or haphazard arrangements and lack of basic infrastructure services.

The people who live in such settlements are susceptible to various vector and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, influenza, meningitis, malaria, diarrhoea and other intestinal diseases.

Health risks in informal settlements increase due to lack of proper sewerage systems, river streams, canals, gullies and ditches and open spaces are the places where most human excrement and household waste and drinking water ends up untreated. This is a serious sanitation problem.

Sanitation as a whole covers excrete disposal, drainage maintenance, sullage disposal, industrial liquid and solid waste management.

As polluted water drains into larger water bodies, it leads to the destruction of ecosystems.

Discharge of effluent into valleys pollutes the aquatic habitat. Fish and other river water related foods can easily be contaminated leading in turn to health hazards.

In most human settlements surface and ground water is polluted mainly from domestic sewage disposed by poor pit-latrines and from non-operating septic tanks and soak pits.

Solid wastes accumulate on streets, in valleys, open spaces, between houses, market places and on vacant land, which contributes to serious health hazards.

This has a repercussion in neighbourhoods where children play, and the community as a whole is negatively impacted through inaccessibility of good quality and adequate water which compels residents to buy water at high prices and more often than not they are forced to use contaminated water.
Also due to higher density in settlements residents are at higher risk of contact with excreta. This also means refuse accumulation on wastelands and streets.

Disease vector and pests are attracted to garbage. Its impact on the environment includes surface and ground water contamination, food contamination, as well as breeding of insect pests.

Low capacity to collect garbage has always been the case in informal settlements.

In urban areas town councils are sometimes unable to provide an adequate refuse collection system even for the town centre alone. In-efficiencies in managing and implementing public waste collection and disposal efforts often lead to clogging of drainage systems (channels) by silt.

Garbage overflow and flooding is yet another hazard associated with informal housings.

To be associated with this also is fire hazards – there are no precautions taken when people connect electricity to their houses. Most serious is that even the fire brigade does not have reliable trucks to extinguish fires.

Construction of septic tanks, soak pits, pit latrines, open sewers etc. can increase soil moisture as well as contamination to the soil.

Poorly constructed pit latrines are a common feature in informal housing.
Informal land development for housing has other repercussions, particularly an increase in drainage problems.

Removal of vegetation reduces land capacity to retain water and resist erosion. Haphazard buildings of all kinds such as petty trade structures along roadsides, the carrying out of informal economic activities i.e. brick-making, etc. can cause considerable environmental problems.

If uncontrolled, congestion, reduction of drainage space, constraints to easy repair of utility lines when needed, and serious road flooding may occur where it never existed before the construction of such structures started. In addition, when buffer land along roads and utility lines are misused, diversion of traffic during major road repairs or expansion is curtailed.

It is known that it is difficult establish a drainage system in a squatter area due to unplanned layouts.

Quite often uncoordinated drainage improvement efforts by individuals and groups are less effective because they lack cooperation and capital.

Rugumamu (1992 report) observes with concern the development of residential land uses into hazard lands (steep slope valleys, swampy areas, marshes and salt flats) and other lands subject to flooding by both the urban poor and affluent population.

Not infrequently, woodlands environmental degradation impacts on soil, erosion sedimentation, water logging (flooding) de-vegetation and pollution.

As can be deduced thus far, informal housing is associated with the urban poor. In some cases, houses found in so-called squatter areas do not reflect that the owners are poor because their values could be high and their design and construction could only be done by people in the high brackets.

This gives the impression that not all informal housing is done by the urban poor. That not withstanding, the majority of the urban poor who need shelter construct poor quality houses or inhabit the same which are located in hazard-prone areas for lack of access to better land as well as financial resources.

However, informality and settlement development in hazard land is not only a question of being poor.

Government’s emphasis on improvement of unplanned human settlement

Just like many other local and municipal councils in developing countries in the world, Namibian local and municipal councils are unable to cope with the demand for servicing and improving the living conditions of unplanned settlements in the urban areas due to lack of funds and resources.

However, the government introduced the NHE in 1993 in order to provide and finance affordable housing targeting the middle to low-income groups.

The government’s main role would therefore be to assist the communities through its various agencies and departments with technical, political and financial support.

Recommendations & Conclusion

– Bringing the development of urban areas into harmony with the natural environment and the overall system of settlements is one of the basic tasks to be undertaken in achieving a sustainable urbanized world.

– Promote urban planning, housing and industrial siting initiatives that discourage the siting of hazardous industrial facilities in residential areas.

– Seek to prevent or minimize pollution and exposure to pollution from industrial facilities, while also promoting urban planning, housing and industrial siting initiatives that discourage the disproportionate siting of polluting industrial facilities in areas inhabited by people living in poverty or members of other vulnerable and disadvantaged groups.

– Develop and support the implementation of improved land management practices that deal comprehensively with competing urban land requirements for housing, industry, commerce, infrastructure, transport, green spaces and activities for playgrounds, parks, sport and recreation areas and areas suitable for gardening and urban agriculture.

– Promote the integration of land use communication and transport planning to encourage development patterns that reduce the demand for transport.

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