Facing Climate Change in Informal Settings

by David Smith, Gonzalo Lizarralde, Lisa Bornstein, Benjamin Herazo, Trent Bonsall, and Steffen Lajoie*

“The ocean has never harmed me.
People have.”
– Local leader in Carahatas, Cuba

Climate warming scenarios for Latin America and the Caribbean predict a mean temperature increase of roughly 4.5°C by the end of this century, as compared with pre-industrial times[i]. Higher temperatures increase the frequency and severity of droughts, hurricanes, tropical storms, and other hazards. They also exacerbate stressors such as erosion and sea level rise. Global warming alters patterns of wet and dry seasons, creating atypical periods of intense rainfall and drought that disturb the ecosystems upon which residents depend.

Climate change is not only a meteorological problem, however. Racism, colonialism, elitism, savage capitalism, and other social injustices have created the conditions underlying the unequal impact of risk in the region[ii]. In Latin America and the Caribbean, an estimated 103 million people live in informal settlements[iii], and poverty and food insecurity have significantly increased since 2020. Residents in informal settings are typically more vulnerable to climate change related risks than people living in formal housing and occupying formal jobs (see article here). Low-income residents in the region generally depend on the informal economy for their livelihoods, live in settlements that are exposed to hazards (e.g., in sloped areas, near waterbeds or in coastal areas), and have limited access to credit, land tenure, infrastructure, and services. Low-income women are typically more vulnerable to natural hazards than men. They have lower incomes, are less likely to own property, and often bear the double burden of generating income all the while caring for children and elderly family members[iv]. The combination of increased natural hazard exposure and vulnerability arguably explains why informal settlements are among the most disaster-prone areas in the world.

Informal settings refer to the times, places, and circumstances wherein people (at the individual, household, or community scale) develop informal mechanisms to respond to local conditions, and informal measures to secure access to water, sanitation, shelter, income, and services in the face of marginalization and other hostile conditions. These informal mechanisms and measures are developed outside or in parallel with institutionalized procedures and standards. Informality is an attribute and a way of doing things within a system of economic activities, governance structures, and built environment production processes[v].

The notion of informality in this context has, of course, subjective, and fuzzy boundaries. Informal mechanisms and measures often overlap or co-exist with formal and institutionalized plans and programs, thus blurring the formal-informal divide[vi]. Informal settings intersect with ideas of the vernacular, indigenous, or craftsmanship, and are highly context specific. Informal housing conditions and economic activities differ in Cuba, Colombia, and Chile, (see “Where We Worked”). We recognize that the term “informal settings” might convey misconceptions about illicitness or illegality. However, we emphasize that the term does not refer to a legal status but to housing and economic conditions that emerge from local agency in parallel with government action or in its absence. Excerpt from the ADAPTO final report available here.

Bridging the Implementation Gap

Most scholars and international agencies now consider that adaptation to climate change effects is unavoidable[vii]. In fact, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in Latin America and the Caribbean are a priority for United Nations agencies, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other multilateral international organizations, national governments, and municipalities in Cuba, Colombia, and Chile. In recent years, these three countries have developed comprehensive national climate change adaptation plans and disaster risk reduction programs[viii].

However, implementation of climate reaction plans and programs in Latin America and the Caribbean can be difficult—particularly in small- and medium-sized cities. Compared to large urban centers, small- and medium-sized cities have less infrastructure and capacity to offer basic services. They often operate with meagre budgets and lack technical, legal, and administrative resources to deal with housing and infrastructure deficits[ix]. Since the 1990s, decentralization in the region (often promoted by neoliberal policy) has led to an increase in local authorities’ responsibilities, including implementation of disaster risk reduction plans, infrastructure development, and housing delivery. However, adequate decision-making power, investment in administrative capacity, and financial resources have rarely accompanied these decentralization measures[x]. Many municipalities have lost the capacity to deal with rapid urbanization patterns, infrastructure needs, and social problems.  

In addition to the problem of insufficient institutional capacity at the local level, climate adaptation and risk reduction policies formulated by central governments are often at odds with local needs and economic objectives. As a result, municipal officials and planners face difficult decisions, such as implementing relocation programs that residents actively oppose, zoning agricultural land for urban development, and protecting green areas that would otherwise be available for development. Moreover, decisions about planning often create secondary effects at the local level, such as pushing urban development far from urban centers, gentrifying areas, and increasing land prices. Finally, national policy often overlooks residents’ lifestyles and challenges, as well as symbolic, economic, and cultural connections with land, water, and ecosystems.

In response to structural problems and policy contradictions, residents in informal settings often initiate, plan, and execute activities that help them cope with their daily struggles and to some degree, reduce risk. Informal settings are therefore effective incubators of culturally rich and informally driven responses to disasters and risks. These strategies are often initiated and led by women, who display various forms of leadership (e.g., charismatic, communicational, and organizational) within families, communities, and civil society groups. However, these initiatives are sometimes ignored by decision- and policy-makers, who may prefer to halt informal development, evict informal residents, and replace informal housing and commerce with green areas, master-planned urban development, infrastructure, or urban beautification initiatives[xi]. It is often fair to say that there is a significant implementation gap between top-down policies and local initiatives on the ground. Informal and locally driven adaptation strategies emerge within a variety of governance conditions. Informality manifests differently in Cuba, Colombia, and Chile. Government responses to informality also vary within countries and over time. They generally range from intolerance (including evictions, decrees of illegality, and master plans to replace informal solutions) to laissez-faire approaches. Sometimes, authorities exercise too much power to be able to radically transform informal settings. In other cases, they are explicitly or implicitly absent. In all cases, however, insights from local initiatives are misunderstood by authorities, insufficiently documented, transferred, or integrated in policy.

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[iii] United Nations. (2018). The Sustainable Development Goals report.

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[viii] Feld, B. & Galiani, S. (2015). Climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean: Policy options and research priorities.Latin American Economic Review, 24(1), 1-39.

[ix] Birkmann, J., et al. (2016). Boost resilience of small and mid-sized cities. Nature, 537(7622), 605-608.

[x] Hardoy, J., & Romero Lankao, P. (2011). Latin American cities and climate change: Challenges and options to mitigation and adaptation responses. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 3(3), 158-163.

[xi] Aguilar, L. (2009). Women and climate change: Vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities. In Starke, L. (Ed.), State of the world 2009: Into a warming world (pp. 59-62). Worldwatch Institute.

*Cite as: Smith, David et al., (2021). Facing Climate Change in Informal Settings. In Artefacts of Disaster Risk Reduction: Community-based responses to climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean. Smith, David; Herazo, Benjamin; Lizarralde, Gonzalo (editors). Montreal: Université de Montréal. Accessible here: https://artefacts.umontreal.ca/