Meet Susan Gichuna, Sustainable Urban Development Expert and Mawazo Scholar

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Understanding How Climate Change Impacts Residents of Nairobi’s Informal Settlements

by Susan Gichuna

Globally, climate change is now recognized as the greatest threat to humanity. Climate impacts such as droughts and extreme weather events have increased in recent times and are projected to grow over the coming decades. Although these impacts are being experienced globally, the effects are disproportionate. Lower income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions, who are the smallest contributors to global warming, are the most vulnerable because they lack the capacity to respond to and recover from climate impacts.

As the burden of climate change in developing countries continues to grow, the effects are most pronounced among the poorest segments of population, such as the urban poor residing in informal settlements. African countries such as Kenya are fast urbanizing resulting in increased growth of the informal settlements. In Nairobi, for example, an estimated 60 to 70 percent of residents live in slums.  The urban poor who reside in these informal settlements are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change for a number of reasons. These settlements tend to be located in risk-prone areas such as hillsides, river banks and near damping sites. Poverty compounds these environmental risks, limiting the ability of the inhabitants to cope when disasters such as flooding strike, as was the case during the recent heavy rain season. The county government of Nairobi has since allocated an emergency fund of Ksh. 194 million to deal with impacts of the floods in the city. However, the initiative came a little too late to avert the catastrophe, pointing to poor planning and failed disaster management. Thus, there is an increasingly urgent need to understand the unique effects of climate change phenomena such as extreme weather events on the urban poor, as well as identify effective strategies to mitigate these risks and build their resilience to the impacts.

The challenge of climate change is a complex multi-faceted issue that requires a combination of scientific, societal and political knowledge to address it. For instance, climate impacts such as floods affect multiple sectors including housing, agriculture, health, transport, and energy. Such problems cannot be solved by one sector or academic discipline, nor through a single perspective. The Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation (ICCA) at the University of Nairobi where I am a PhD student emphasizes the use of a transdisciplinary approach in addressing climate change and adaptation. This approach requires close cooperation and collective learning by various stakeholders.

My Ph.D. research will focus on climate change impacts and adaptation in Nairobi’s informal settlements, specifically Majengo Slums.  Majengo is located in Pumwani Ward, a few kilometres from Nairobi’s central business district and bordering the highly polluted Nairobi River. The settlement has been in existence since 1921 and comprises four smaller settlements including Sofia, Mashimoni, Katanga and Digo. According to the Kenya National Housing and Population Census 2009, Majengo has over 16,000 residents.  The geographic location and poor condition of the settlements increases the vulnerability of Majengo residents to climate impacts. The goals of my research are three-fold. First, I will identify the specific impacts of climate change on Majengo residents, and secondly, establish how the residents of Majengo cope and respond to the climate impacts. Finally, I will use my findings to develop recommendations for policy actions that government and city authorities can take to enhance resilience of the urban poor against the climate impacts. My research will involve close engagement with the Majengo community and key stakeholders such as relevant government ministries and bodies, local and county government, non-governmental organizations, and community-based organizations. Data collection will entail both quantitative and qualitative methods including household surveys, key informant interviews, and focus group discussions.

Nairobi’s informal settlements have certainly been studied widely. However, focus has mainly been on issues such as healthcare, poverty and education access, with little emphasis on the growing impacts of climate change in these settings. More systematic studies specific to climate change are required, and my research aims to contribute to addressing this gap in the literature. Ultimately, I aim to provide concrete insights to inform climate adaptation policy and planning, and thus strengthen pro-poor development outcomes in Nairobi county.  


Susan Gichuna is a researcher on Climate Change and Adaptation, and Sustainable Urban Development. She is a Ph.D. student at the Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation at the University of Nairobi.