Community-led climate action: building equitable, resilient cities from the bottom up

With local climate action in informal settlements playing a pivotal role in building more equitable, resilient, low-carbon cities in a rapidly urbanising world, it is time to make more effective use of climate finance to address poverty and inequalities in our cities.

Nina Schoonman's picture
Insight by 
Nina Schoonman
Researcher in IIED’s Human Settlements research group
02 May 2024
A tall metal water tower with several small brick buildings around it.

In the absence of council water provision, a communal water point financed by the Urban Poor Fund provides water in Tafara informal settlement, Harare, Zimbabwe (Photo: Dialogue on Shelter for the Homeless in Zimbabwe Trust (SDI affiliate))

In April 2024, Slum Dwellers International (SDI) federations in Kenya and Zimbabwe held a virtual meeting to share their experiences and efforts to combat climate change. Reflecting on that exchange, this insight explores the devastating impacts of climate change in informal settlements, how communities are responding and how climate finance can help build more equitable cities. 

Climate change and urban development

In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the climate battle will largely be won or lost in cities. Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050, and most of this growth will take place in informal settlements, which are already home to 60% of the continent’s urban population. And, as climate change forces more people out of declining rural areas, this is only likely to increase. 

By 2030, up to 116 million Africans will be exposed to sea-level rise, mostly in informal settlements without flood defences, drainage or adequate sanitation. At the same time, temperatures are rising: by 2100, 950 million urban Africans may face the prospect of 15-day heatwaves, with temperatures soaring above 42°C.

Structural inequalities shape climate risk

People living in informal settlements have long been neglected, marginalised, excluded and even displaced, their homes forcibly demolished. These settlements are often built in dangerous locations, on flood plains or steep slopes, and have limited access to infrastructure and basic services that can mitigate risk. 

High levels of poverty and inequality, chronic underinvestment and limited policy to guide urbanisation or respond to climate change all leave slumdwellers deeply vulnerable to climate change. For them, sweltering temperatures, rising floodwaters and drought are already a reality. 

Living on the frontline 

At the SDI meeting, residents of affected settlements spoke about how flooding has taken lives and forced people out of their homes. Inadequate waste management blocks drains, enhancing flood risks, and “any time there is a lot of flooding, faecal waste is washed across the settlement, posing significant health hazards”. 

Poor housing and high urban density amplify the impacts of climate change. During a heatwave in Nairobi, temperatures were 3-5°C hotter in informal settlements than other parts of the city. Residents pointed out that high winds are more likely to blow off poorly constructed roofs, and substandard floors and walls provide little protection from rising floodwaters.

As cities grow, so too does demand for water. Residents noted that “the challenge of water is great, as there was not enough rain,” and “now there is a drought, most of the wells have dried up”. As droughts become more common and longer-lasting, water scarcity leads to food shortages and reduces livelihoods.

Community-led climate responses

SDI federations have a long history of improving settlements from the bottom up. Now, they are demonstrating their dynamism and resilience in the face of climate change. 

The grassroots federations represented at the meeting are working on a range of community-led responses, from climate risk and vulnerability assessments to self-help retrofits, installing solar boreholes to address water scarcity and increasing the uptake of solar lighting. Many integrate nature-based solutions across settlements, planting trees for shade and restoring rivers to reduce flood risks and improve water and environmental quality. 

Others work on climate-smart urban agriculture and improved sanitation and waste collection, management and recycling. In terms of organising, they support disaster risk management teams to help keep their communities safe and set up ward climate change planning committees. On a higher level, they influence subnational climate policy and legislation. In the words of one federation member, “climate change is cutting across everything that we are doing right now”.

Climate finance for equitable urban development

In sub-Saharan Africa, 55% of the population do not have access to electricity and 80% of the buildings and infrastructure that will exist in 2050 are yet to be built (PDF). These are opportunities to promote climate-compatible development in the region, while meeting basic needs.

The work of SDI federations showcases the potential of working with informality to build more equitable and resilient low-carbon cities. There are already 500 local climate action groups active in three Kenyan counties alone, and the movement is poised to grow. But amplifying local action requires an appetite to go beyond small-scale interventions to tackle climate change and development challenges at scale, with finance to match. 

SDI’s work is a powerful illustration of what can be achieved locally. But impoverished communities are drawing on their own savings to finance climate action. As one resident put it: “There is no money, but we are trying by all means to save”. 

Having contributed so little to the emissions driving climate change, the people living in informal settlements are bearing the brunt of its impacts. Is it really fair to ask them to foot the bill, too?

These costs can and should be met by climate finance. But just 10% of climate finance is directed at the local level and communities face countless barriers in accessing the little funding available. If they can draw down and leverage climate finance, they can build more equitable, resilient and low-carbon cities, guided by the needs and priorities of the people who live in them.