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Responding to disaster: How poverty and vulnerability are linked in Mumbai

Mumbai, home to the 156 metre-tall towers of the World Trade Centre, is the financial centre of India. It is also a city of immense poverty. There, roughly half of the metropolitan area’s 22 million people live in informal settlements, or slums. They include Dharavi where as much a one million people coexist in an area of just over two square kilometers – crowded into small structures often stacked one on top of the other.

It’s this contrast that intrigues Patricia Romero Lankao, an urban researcher at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. In an ongoing project, she explores why some of Mumbai’s residents are more vulnerable than others to natural hazards – such as the heat waves that come in April, May and June or the flooding and storm surges that hit the city every monsoon season in July and August.

Romero Lankao’s work is part of a growing body of research examining how poverty may put communities around the world at greater risk from the impacts of climate change. She says that in Mumbai, as in many other parts of the world, the story isn’t simple: Wealth can help people to bounce forward from floods or other hazards. But the capacity that residents have for responding to crises can be just as important. That captures everything from how they get their news to whether people tackle challenges on their own or as part of a supportive community.

Studying such patterns is important, Romero Lankao says, because it can show scientists, governments and urban advocates where they should focus their efforts to help communities to weather global changes. “Wealth is key, but it’s not enough,” says Romero Lankao, who is also a member of the Scientific Steering Committee of Urbanization and Global Environmental Change (UGEC), a global research project of Future Earth. “You can be very poor, but if you have a community that provides you with a safety net, and if you are organised, and if you know each other, you will have more opportunities to respond to hazards.”

Monsoon season

And Mumbai is no stranger to natural hazards. The city sits on a series of low-lying islands on the Arabian Sea and gets about half of its yearly rainfall in a handful of massive outbursts during monsoon season – a recipe for severe flooding. One infamous storm in July 2005 dumped more than 90 centimetres of rain on Mumbai in a single day, shutting down train lines and killing over 400 people in the city alone.

Romero Lankao has gotten a taste of monsoon season, too. During a visit to Mumbai in 2015, she remembers returning to her hotel soaking wet after spending days out in the city: “Usually, when I do field work, I don’t care about rain, but whenever we got to the hotel, I told my post-doc, let’s take a shower,” she says. Many neighborhoods in Mumbai have poorly-constructed sewers, or no sewers at all, she explains. Trash pickup is also spotty at best, situations that can turn streets into a soupy mess of waste when it rains.

And there’s good evidence to suggest that these hazards affect Mumbai’s poor more than others. According to a report from UN-Habitat, 10 days after the flooding of 2005, parts of the metropolitan area along the Mithi River, which is dominated by slums, still had little access to food or clean drinking water – even as the rest of Mumbai had recovered.

Patricia Romero Lankao and her colleagues tour Dharavi, an informal settlement that is home to as many as one million people. Photo: Romero Lankao, Daniel Gnatz and Joshua Sperling.

To get a better sense of how poverty puts Mumbai’s residents at risk, Romero Lankao teamed up with students from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune. The students walked across Mumbai, talking to residents from Dharavi to the gated communities where the wealthy live. They spoke about natural disasters, but they also asked questions about the participants’ economic situations, such as whether they owned a TV or an air conditioner. The students asked residents about their capacity for responding to disaster, too. That included whether residents knew about or had access to government programmes around responding to hazards and whether they belonged to tightly-knit social networks. In all, the students surveyed around 1,250 people.

The result was a complex mosaic of what makes people in Mumbai vulnerable to natural disasters. What surprised Romero Lankao was that a large portion of that vulnerability didn’t depend on how exposed people were to hazards – for instance, whether they lived in low-lying areas prone to flooding. Vulnerability, or how much a disaster can affect your life when it hits and your ability to bounce forward, mostly revolved around poverty and capacity. And that has real implications for peoples’ livelihoods and security. Romero Lankao found that residents living in what she calls “high vulnerability” households reported experiencing health impacts, such as respiratory illnesses, after  facing hazards three times as much as people from less vulnerable communities. Romero Lankao published her results along with colleagues Daniel Gnatz and Joshua Sperling in a recent paper in the journal Climatic Change.

It’s a trend that plays out across the world, Romero Lankao says. She explains that if you look at countries around the world, most don’t differ by too much in their exposure to the impacts of climate change, such as droughts or rising sea levels. But how those risks can affect the health and economies of nations varies by a lot. “In terms of sensitive to hazards and lack of adaptive capacity indicators like education and women’s rights, access to infrastructure, you see how countries such as those in the Global South and even India and China are faced with challenges,” Romero Lankao says.

Community networks

What can be especially important is how tight-knit a community is, adds Romero Lankao. In Mumbai, for instance, some informal settlements have joined an organisation called Slum Dwellers International. It helps slums to get access to government services and recognition as legal settlements. Those communities, she says, may be better off in the event of floods. 

“We find the same in Mexico City, Santiago, Buenos Aires and Bogota,” says Romero Lankao, who has spent much of her career working in Latin and South America. “The poor tend to have a network of friends and family members and neighbors, and some of them get more organised and are more about collaborative practices.”

Wealthier communities, on the other hand, are less vulnerable to hazards overall. But they also often lack the networks of poorer communities – preferring to take a go-it-alone approach to crises. And that can have big ramifications. In 2003, for instance, a severe heat wave hit much of Europe, and roughly 35,000 people died, many of them elderly. “One of the reasons was because the elderly were by themselves,” Romero Lankao says. “So who can you rely on in case of emergency?”

The researcher has seen how complex vulnerability can be in her own community. In September 2013, a series of devastating floods spread through much of Colorado, including Boulder where Romero Lankao lives. One night, her stepson woke her up to tell her that the basement of their house was flooding. She first tried to sop up the water coming in with towels. “Then I thought, ‘This is not working. Isn’t it true that I’m an expert on this on this? What is it that you do during a disaster? I rely on my networks,'” Romero Lankao says. 

So she went outside to talk to her neighbors – and that, she says, is how communities can become less vulnerable when the inevitable strikes.