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Measures of disaster risk management in informal settlements

Isandla Institute | 2019-03-26 | 642 views

Informal settlement residents live in precarious circumstances caused by multiple factors which affect their quality of life. These households are incredibly vulnerable to natural and other disasters such as flooding and fires. A number of methods are implemented by government to manage and mitigate disaster risks in informal settlements, including settlement realignment, smoke detectors and fire combat training, alternative building materials use and methods, as well as alternative lighting technologies. The provision of disaster kits is the most common initial intervention by government once a natural disaster has struck [1].

Re-blocking, the realignment of shacks, allows for thoroughfares and courtyards that inhibit the spread of fires. Re-blocking has been successfully implemented in Ruimsig in Johannesburg and Mtshini Wam in Cape Town, among others [2]. The thoroughfares improves access for fire engines. Access to water for dwellers on a one-to-one ratio (in Mtshini Wam) mean that fires can be extinguished faster. Superblocking, a larger scale realignment of a bigger informal settlement, involves the demarcation of routes/streets, at times with varying hierarchies [3]. For the same reasons as re-blocking, superblocking helps reduces fire devastation. Both methods assist in mitigating the negative impacts of localised flooding in settlements through the installation of underground and surface drainage systems. This proved effective in both Mtshini Wam and Ruimsig, which is located in a wetland [4].

Government has rolled out smoke detectors in informal settlements. The Western Cape Department of Human settlements had installed over 2000 smoke detectors in Wallacedene, Cape Town by July 2018 [5]. These have led to a significant decline in fire related deaths [6]. About 5200 smoke detectors are planned to be installed in Cape Town’s Imizamo Yethu [7]. In terms of combatting fires, in 2016 the City of Johannesburg’s Emergency Management Services (EMS), through its annual winter safety campaign, distributed 250 safety kits to Mangolongolo informal settlement in Denver, eastern Johannesburg, and provided residents with vital information to help combat the outbreak of fires [8].

Fire hazard has led to innovation in the building materials and methods used in the construction of shack dwellings. The City of Cape Town has adopted the use of a more fire resistant material for the construction of units as in Mtshini Wam [9]. A personal account from a resident community leader suggests that the material has led to a decline in the incidence of fires in Mtshini Wam [10].

Alternative means of lighting in shacks have been implemented that ultimately reduce susceptibility to fires, particularly where petroleum-based means of lighting are otherwise used. Good examples are the installation of the ‘litre of light’ bottles by the Litre of Light Foundation that allow for the use of sunlight during the day instead of candlelight. These have been installed in slums across the globe (including India, the Philippines, Nigeria, Kenya and in South Africa – Mtshini Wam and Khayelitsha)[11]. Municipalities have also provided solar panels for lighting. Ekurhuleni Municipality installed solar panels in Umgababa informal settlement as part of a R17.5 million project in 2013 [12].

Two new grants have been implemented by the National Department of Human Settlements in 2018/2019 - the Provincial Emergency Housing Grant and Municipal Emergency Housing Grant. The purpose of these grants is to provide emergency housing units for households in both formal and informal areas in the event of disasters that leave people homeless. Either the Province or Municipality may apply for the grant [13]. This is a timely grant given the increasing impacts of climate change on the lives of informal settlement residents.

The impact of hazards – specifically the exposure and vulnerability of a settlement to hazards, should be mitigated contextually. Via community participation, GIS information can be gathered for each settlement to determine areas highly prone to flooding and fires. This information is useful for strategic and spatial planning for the settlement, and can be translated into improved settlement design and layout by the municipality through participatory processes in partnership with residents. While government has taken significant steps to mitigate and manage disaster risks, the scaling up of these measures is needed to have wider impact.

[1] Abunyewaha, M., Gajendrana, T., and Maunda, K. “Profiling Informal Settlements for Disaster Risks,” Procedia Engineering, No. 212, p. 238–245
[2] Bolnick, A. 2012. Chapter 5: Transforming Minds and Setting Precedents: Blocking-out at Ruimsig Informal Settlement. State of Local Government. Community Organisation Resource Centre and Ikhayalami. Available at:
[3] National Upgrading Support Programme. 2015. Training Manual: Introduction to Informal Settlement Upgrading Section 8: Layout and Infrastructure. Available at:
[4] South African SDI Alliance. Ruimsig. July 18, 2013. Available at:
[5] Lindeque, B. 2018. Ground-breaking Smoke Alarm project saving South African lives. 18 July 2018. Available at:
[6] Zweig, P., Pharoah, R., Eksteen, R. & Walls, R. n.d. Installation of Smoke Alarms in an Informal Settlement Community in Cape Town, South Africa – Final Report
[7] Jackson, T. 2018. SA’s Lumkani installs 5,200 fire detectors in Imizamo Yethu township. Disrupt Africa. November 29, 2018. Available at:
[8] Van Rooyen, Z. 2018. EMS distributes fire safety kits so informal settlement dwellers stay fire safe this winter. Westside-Eldos Urban. June 15, 2018. Available at:
[9] National Upgrading Support Programme. 2015. Training Manual: Introduction to Informal Settlement Upgrading Section 8: Layout and Infrastructure. Available at:
[10] Community leader who is a member of the Informal Settlement Network (ISN), at CORC’s Local Community of Practice meeting and site visit on 22nd of March 2018.
[11] Knoetze, D. 2012. Light at end of tunnel over shack blazes. Cape Argus. 30 November, 2012. Available at:
[12] Murugan, S. 2013. Solar energy lights up Ekurhuleni’s informal settlements. Vuk’uzenzele. June 2013. Government Communication & Information System. Available at:
[13] National Treasury, 2018. Division of Revenue Act 2018

Written by Martha Hungwe, Isandla Institute

Slum upgrading remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums. UN Habitat (A Practical Guide to Designing, Planning, and Executing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programmes 2015 (PDF), page 15)

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