Change is constant

Change is constant

Despite hailing from the neglected margins, the poor women of India’s slums are making their voices heard so as to lead a better life, write  Renana Jhabvala & Bijal Brahmbhatt

Climate change is often identified with large events like melting glaciers, rising sea levels, uncertain monsoons, cyclones and heat waves, however the reality of climate change is that it is gradually affecting everyday lives and making life more difficult on many levels. This is especially true for the poor in the cities who live in informal settlements, and even more true for the women who have to manage their households.

Informal settlements, many of them actual slums, are home to 30-40% of the population in India and the effect of the changing climate on these homes can be quite devastating. Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT), an NGO, working with women in informal settlements carried out a vulnerability survey and found that the two main climate stresses that affect poor women are heat stress and water scarcity, both of which have been increasing over the years.

Heat events are aggravated by urbanisation and the urban heat island effect can result in cities being 5 to 7 degrees warmer than the surrounding rural areas. Solutions to climate change for poor citizens often need to be different from those proposed for middle-class residents and has to fit their living environment, as well as their much lower incomes.

Home & hearth

The urban poor living in box-like structures, with no windows, ventilation, and little access to expensive cooling technologies, are most affected by exposure to extreme heat. Their houses are often constructed of corrugated iron, brick or cinder blocks that absorb solar radiation and this heat gets transferred to the internal spaces of the house. Women spend much of their time indoors and so suffer the most. Many women are home-based workers producing goods like garments, food products etc., in their homes and the productivity of such workers could go down by up to 50% in summers resulting in reduced household incomes and increased financial burden.

Jashodaben lives in a chawl in Ahmedabad and sews garments for a living. She says, “I live in a small house with a metal roof and we have only one small window. Twenty years ago it was not so bad, it was tolerable, but now Ahmedabad has become so hot. As I stay in the house most of the time I am often unable to breathe and have to keep a wet cloth on my head. Also, since I need to work I keep the lights on all day and that makes it even hotter. Many days I just stop working, and we get no income. I attended a training programme on climate change run by MHT and realised that I could actually do something about this problem. Now my house is cooler, I get both light and air and feel much better.”

Ventilation & light

The solution proposed by MHT was an air-lite ventilator. Air-lite ventilators are dome-shaped roof ventilators made of fibre sheet. These not only improve air circulation and reduce indoor temperatures, but they also enable better day- time lighting of homes, thereby reducing electricity consumption (of fans and tube lights) by almost half. They are also effective in combating indoor air pollution.

Dilshad Banu, also from Ahmedabad, uses her home as a workplace for making kites. Along with the air-lite ventilation, she has also added another innovation, the mod roof. Mod-roofs are made of paper waste and coconut husk. A mod-roof stays cooler than regular roofs by reflecting the sunlight incident on it and emitting thermal radiation. These water-proof cool roofs not only reduce home temperatures by 7 to 8 degrees, but they also provide for a cheaper and environmentally friendly alternative to RCC roofs.

The other climate stress, water scarcity and flash flooding cannot be dealt on an individual level, it requires not only the whole community but the city authorities to be involved. That is where women have shown an unusual public spirit by coming together with the help of MHT to form local community action groups, influencing their whole settlement and even reaching out to the city to include them in plans.

Water, a lifeline

The residents of Jatkedi, a slum in Bhopal, identified scarcity of water as a climate-induced stressor, resulting in poor quality of the groundwater from the government handpumps installed in their settlement. The impact on their health was there for all to see — jaundice and frequent fever affecting both children and adults alike. Two women from the community were trained to use a water testing kit specially designed to use colour based analysis that does not require mathematical skills to compute results.

Results revealed that the borewell water was not fit for drinking as it was highly contaminated with the presence of microbes. As a result, the municipality notified the hand pump as “not eligible for drinking purposes”, and have temporarily arranged water tankers while they work on improved water connections.

Building resilience for climate change cannot be the responsibility of only governments but must involve all citizens. In particular, the poor women who are especially affected need to understand what is causing their climate distress and to be aware of solutions.
(The writers are authors of the recently published book — ‘The City Makers’ by Hachette India — which details the ways in which poor women have changed cities.)