By Laura Stark

The United Nations defines a slum as an informal settlement in which residents lack access to tenure, safe water, sanitation, durability of housing, and sufficient living area. By 2030, the number of people living in slums will be nearly ¼ of the global population. Despite the billions of dollars spent to eliminate slums, such schemes have largely failed because they have not solved the underlying problem of chronic poverty. The poor cannot afford to rent or buy housing at market prices, and therefore demolishing slums does not actually solve anything, since the poor must simply start all over and find somewhere else to rebuild or somewhere cheap to rent, often in hazardous areas such as garbage dumps, flood-prone areas, or near industrial sites where nobody else wants to live.

I have made seven field visits to Dar es Salaam,Tanzania. It is the seventh poorest city in the world and the third fastest-growing city in sub-Sa­haran Africa, whose population is expected to exceed 5 million by 2020. Some five kilometres from the centre of Dar es Salaam, a neighborhood that I will call Kijito is home to some of the worst conditions in the city. Here people survive by working as, for example, construction workers, truck drivers and auto mechanics, or selling food in their neighborhood or on a busy street. Roughly half of the residents of Kijito informally own their homes, while the other half are renters, renting out a room or two for the whole family to live in.

Entering Kijito from the main road, one encounters houses built of cement, arranged haphazardly and connected by open spaces where brightly-colored kangas (2-piece women’s garments displaying a message in Swahili) are hung to dry, children play barefoot, and women cook food over charcoal fires. Urban agriculture is also in evidence: corn and local vegetables were growing in the open spaces between houses, goats tethered to trees, and chickens roam the grass pecking at edible pieces of garbage. Although garbage and waste litter the uneven ground, the predominant smell in the dry season is that of smoke from charcoal fires. In the rainy season, as I later experienced for myself, the ground becomes a morass of foul-smelling water and slippery mud.

As I and my interpreter passed through the settlement every morning, some residents greeted us in Swahili by saying good morning (habari za asubuhi) or peace to you (salaama). Children often waved and shouted mzungu! (white person) when they saw me from afar, and greeted me and my interpreter with the respectful greeting for elders (shikamoo, literally ‘I hold your feet’) when they walked past us. Despite the fact of being located near the centre of a city of nearly five million people, the main impression one gets of Kijito is that of a rural village: palm trees sway in the quiet breeze, interrupted only by the occasional blare of music from a radio, and usually only a few residents can be seen walking or carrying out daily tasks in the open spaces between the houses.

A house with objects placed on the patio roof to hold down the sheets of corrugated iron. © Laura Stark.

The first time I visited Kijito, what residents wanted most to show me was the small polluted river bordering their neighborhood, and I soon understood why. When I asked them what their worst problem was, nearly everyone answered: the annual flooding (mafuriko) caused by the river overflowing during the rainy season. Kijito is just one of several areas in Dar es Salaam in which climate change is starting to worsen annual flooding through sea level rise, variable rainfall, and more intense coastal storms.

In a rainstorm, floods can appear suddenly, and are fast and frightening. I have seen them myself. They carry away people’s belongings, threaten lives, and spread human waste from pit latrines across the neighborhood. Flood waters erode and crack the walls of buildings which are usually made of substandard concrete, since people cannot afford to use high quality concrete. Roughly twenty homes along the river collapsed in 2014 during the rainy season (luckily the residents had already fled). During the floods, residents must seek shelter in another neighborhood on higher ground, and often have to pay for the privilege of sleeping in other people’s hallways.

Flooding is caused in part by the unplanned nature of Kijito, which was originally built on farmland. As more people built houses there, problems began to arise because there was nobody to oversee where and how the houses were built. The plastic pipes which brought drinking water into households were cut by new residents who were digging foundations for their own houses, leaving existing residents without water. Residents built their houses haphazardly, leaving no room for garbage trucks or space for garbage collection. There was thus nowhere to discard their trash except in the river. Eventually, people who needed more space to build homes started piling large bags of trash along the river bank to serve as landfill, greatly reducing the capacity of the river to act as a drainage channel to the Indian Ocean during the rainy season.

Garbage along the riverbank. © Laura Stark.

One may ask why, if the floods are so bad, people living in Kijito don’t just move away. And some do, especially renters who can afford to pay higher rents somewhere else. But there are always more of the urban poor coming to take their place. Some renters stay for decades. And most residents are actually trapped in this flood-prone zone. The land owned by Kijito home owners is rising in value, but the land values of other central areas in Dar are rising even faster. If owners in Kijito sold their homes, they would not receive enough money to buy another home in a central area of the city. They would have to either rent a room, or buy a home outside the city where job opportunities, schools, and health clinics are almost non-existent. The poorest renters, too, are unable to move away from Kijito because they cannot afford higher rents in central areas of the city. Kijito is, residents have told me, one of the last places close to the city center where a person can rent a room for as little as 8 euros per month. Why? Because nobody else wants to live there.

The residents of Kijito hope that the Tanzanian government – or anyone – would be able to help them. Indeed, the city government plans to dredge and widen the river by demolishing homes built along the riverbank as a means to prevent flooding. In Kijito, the demolition zone extends 30 metres from the river bank and includes 87 houses. For those persons unlucky enough to have a house near the river, no assistance has been offered to help them relocate after their homes have been demolished.

Even if the the government or an NGO could take steps to prevent the annual flooding, many residents in Kijito would not be able to stay in the neighborhood long enough to enjoy this new situation. Rents would rise, and most renters would have to look elsewhere for somewhere to live. Right now, rents are low because in Kijito because wealthy people will not invest in land which is prone to severe flooding. The very thing which makes life most difficult for the poor in Kijito is the same thing which allows them to stay there in the first place: the low-cost of renting in a flood-prone zone. This is indeed a paradox for the poor. 

A partially collapsed house along the riverbank in Kijito. © Laura Stark.

The prosperity of cities is fueled by one dynamic: population growth. According to the UN and World Bank, concentrating people in cities reduces the cost of supplying basic services such as education, healthcare, water, housing and infrastructure. Population growth brings businesses and skilled workers to a single geographical location, and together with technological innovation, produces more efficient labour and capital markets, lowers transaction costs, and facilitates knowledge transfer through the density of networks. This means that more jobs are created nearest the densest parts of the city, and that more people want to live there, too, in order to minimize their transportation costs. This dynamic causes land values nearest the city center to rise in proportion to the centrality of their location. These same forces impact the urban poor: they need to live near the center to find the unskilled and informal jobs available there, but they usually cannot afford to buy homes or rent there. Residents of Kijito suffer greatly from flooding, but they need to live near shops, services, marketplaces and opportunities for day jobs. The floods are precisely what allow them to do this, because Kijito’s floods artificially lower the real estate value of land in Kijito. Floods prevent investors from wanting to invest, and have so far prevented the government or NGOs from upgrading Kijito’s infrastructure (putting in paved pathways, pipes for fresh water and sanitation). This has allowed poor renters to stay in Kijito, since upgrading usually leads to a rapid rise in rents.

In their quest to be seen as modern world-class cities, many urban areas are currently trying to get rid of the ‘slums’ they see as embarrassing to their global image. But since their efforts do nothing to alleviate the underlying poverty of slum residents, the poorest renters remain on the move, searching for another place to live, settling for places with dangerous living conditions because the rents are lower there, and building new slums. Such mobile renters have, until now, tended to be invisible in urban planning, although they comprise a significant part of the urban population in every developing country. As researchers, we need to ask ourselves what can be done to solve the paradoxes they face.

A resident of Kijito in her neighborhood the day before a flash flood. © Laura Stark.