Building sustainable settlements to protect vulnerable communities
Olumuyiwa Bayode Adegun took on his first collaborative transdisciplinary research project to reduce the risk and devastating impact natural disasters can have on local communities in Africa. Rising sea level, flooding, windstorm and heat stress threaten low-income urban settlements in Lagos and Dar-es-Salaam. In this blog post, Olumuyiwa explains how his CR4D grant helped his research towards building sustainable and resilient settlements to withstand the impact of climate change.
The Climate Research for Development (CR4D) programme strengthens links between climate science research and climate information needs to support development planning in Africa. CR4D is implemented through the AESA Platform. AESA (The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa) is a funding, agenda-setting, programme management initiative of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) in partnership with the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), founding and funding global partners, and through a resolution of the summit of African Union Heads of Governments. CR4D is supported by the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO, formerly DFID), Weather and Climate information SERvices for Africa (WISER) programme and the Africa Climate Policy Centre (ACPC) of the United Nations Economic Commission (UNECA).
I trained as an architect, and now divide my time between teaching in the Department of Architecture at the Federal University of Technology, Nigeria, and using my knowledge to carry out research, addressing environmental sustainability challenges within low-income urban settlements in sub-Sahara Africa. My long-term interest inspired by my past work in cities within Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. This led me to focus on how to improve the quality of life in low-income urban environments, such as slums and informal settlements. I chose to apply for a grant from the Climate Research for Development (CR4D) Programme, to enable me to work on strengthening adaptation to climate impacts in coastal zone informal settlements within Lagos and Dar-es-Salaam, two major coastal cities in Africa.
Extreme weather and its threat to communities
Impacts of extreme weather events are already a reality within informal settlements, places where a significant proportion of the urban population in Africa live. Estimates show that not less than 50% of African urban residents live in areas categorised as slums and informal settlements; much of which are located on the waterfronts, low-lying areas and riparian corridors in coastal cities.
Two recently large-scale examples of natural disasters are the 2017 mudslide in Sierra Leone and 2019 Cyclone Idai in Mozambique where over 1,000 people died in each area. Climate-related impacts, on smaller scales, are commonplace across African cities; and more, sadly, are expected, given the level of vulnerability in slums and informal settlements.
From my research I found that informal modes of housing development and urbanization have significantly altered natural ecosystems and it appears nature is fighting back. Informal settlements in coastal zones are experiencing a combination of climate change impacts and repercussions of ecological disturbances. I can list a range of problems and challenges we need to overcome.
Individual household, communal structural and non-structural (referring to those that did not involve physical construction) strategies to cope with climate impacts are currently inadequate. The state and key stakeholders have a significant role to play in co-producing solutions. Informal settlements, due to their neighbourhood fabric and housing conditions, also have higher exposure to heat stress, compared with other parts of Lagos and Dar es Salaam.
We as humans are dependent on the natural environment to provide food and water for us to live on. The benefits nature provides us are referred to as ecosystem services. When these are healthy, we are able to receive natural pollination of crops, clean air and drinking water. However, the absence of green structures and the associated ecosystem services in terrestrial neighbourhoods is palpable. Using GIS modelling, we predict that a 1.5m sea level rise would wipe off around 20% of coastal zone settlements in Nigeria including buildings, infrastructure.
Nature-based solutions are a suitable adaptation pathway for coastal zone settlements, such as, restoring damaged/decimated mangrove ecosystem. Vertical Greening Systems (VGS) is another good alternative to consider in informal settlements. VGS are vertical gardens built along the outer walls of buildings so that the structure can be covered by vegetation, which is advantageous for those living within high density environments, or with poor or contaminated soil. They can absorb fine dust particles and gaseous pollutants, thereby improving the air quality for local habitants.
Covid-19 response and climate action
There are significant links between COVID-19 and climate change. We are seeing environmental quality improving because the pandemic has contributed to temporary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. On the other hand, it has diverted attention and resources away from relevant actions needed to address the climate crisis and achieve nationally determined contributions. For example, lockdowns and restrictions have disrupted weather monitoring.
In line with my research interests, I believe climate action and COVID-19 responses have significant relevance for informal settlements. There are three key aspects we can learn. Firstly, COVID-19 increased attention on vulnerable communities particularly those living in dense low-income settlements with measures taken to improve their conditions. One example is the steps taken in South Africa, where water and sanitation facilities were supplied in what used to be under-serviced settlements. Covid-19 has flagged the reality of the urban poor’s vulnerabilities to climate change. Going forward, vulnerabilities to and impacts of extreme weather events within slums and informal settlements needs to, like the covid-19 pandemic, gain traction in the post-pandemic era.
Secondly, insufficient or no data makes it difficult to plan and proffer solutions to problems. This was another issue raised by Covid-19. Data and records need to be taken in slums and informal settlements to provide the robust information needed to inform the best means to address the risks imposed by climate change.
Lastly, Covid-19 has made me aware of the power of communication and its value in addressing and changing behaviour. During the pandemic, we saw a variety of songs, skits, comedies, performances, infographics and announcements used to provide information, create awareness and debunk myths for behavioural change, especially among youths and within low-income communities.
From my on-going research in an informal settlement in Lagos, I’m aware that more needs to be done to educate communities about environmental issues. We must innovate our communication methods on environmental awareness and how information is disseminated to improve climate adaptation in slums.
Being part of a cohort of future academic leaders in Africa
My CR4D research might have been challenging at times, but overall, it has been a fulfilling experience. It enabled me to address societal challenges and build local capacity, helping me to actively contribute to Africa’s transformation. The CR4D fellowship has helped to lay good foundations on which subsequent research projects will be built.
Postdoctoral training within Africa is crucial for the development of Africa-relevant scholarship and solutions. We need to nurture homegrown talent and enhance the development of early career researchers. There is an increasing number of young Africans earning PhDs, and they must be nurtured into academic leaders. They must be supported to become established scientists contributing solutions to African problems.