Rooting for Resilience: Ensuring Climate Justice for the Urban Poor through Housing Justice

The rapid urbanisation of ill-equipped cities, particularly in developing countries like Zambia, has become a common phenomenon, resulting in cities becoming ‘hotbeds of vulnerability’. Zambian cities are not exempt from increased vulnerability, as much of the population resides in informal settlements characterised by widening inequalities between the rich and the poor. Despite the urban poor contributing minimally to climate change, they bear a disproportionate burden of its impacts, much like other vulnerable minority social groups in Zambia. This amplifies the call for climate justice, as socio-economic disadvantage and vulnerability in cities are already highly stratified.

Climate justice in urban centres can be understood in different ways, including the distributive aspect, which concerns the fair allocation of benefits and burdens, and the procedural aspect, which examines how procedures and practices recognize the interests of vulnerable groups. While there are calls to expand the focus from the equity implications of climate change on humans to the eco-ethics of nature’s rights, it is evident that human security from climate impacts should be guaranteed, particularly for those inherently vulnerable who have not contributed to the current climate crisis.

In light of the aforementioned, the Zambia Homeless and Poor People’s Federation and People’s Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia (PPHPZ) believes that climate action aimed at enhancing the adaptive capacities of the urban poor should be locally shaped and locally owned, tailored to their real needs at the community level. People’s Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia and Zambia Homeless and Poor People’s Federation are part of a programme called “Amplifying Voices for Just Climate Action” which is a lobby and advocacy programme. There is a concerning trend of false climate solutions that do not effectively address grassroots adaptive capacities. In partnership with the federation, PPHPZ has identified access to decent shelter as a human right heavily impacted by climate change, especially when houses are poorly constructed, hindering households from fully adapting to climate change due to housing poverty. Housing justice is primarily viewed as a developmental issue; however, in urban contexts where flooding and heatwaves are becoming prominent, housing is crucial not only for adaptive capacities but, more importantly, for human security against dire climate impacts.

For instance, Lusaka experiences perennial flooding attributed to various factors, with the communities noting increased rainfall intensity. During the 2022 rainy season, Lusaka witnessed heightened floods in most settlements; leading to around 20 damaged houses recorded by the federation. Unfortunately, most of the vulnerable households could not afford to vacate and rebuild their homes. Consequently, there were injuries from collapsing houses and waterborne diseases also surged due to contaminated water sources. Zambia’s average temperature has been increasing, compounded by urban heat islands in densely populated areas, leading to higher average temperatures compared to sparsely populated regions. A profile conducted by the federation in Lusaka revealed that 60% of the houses in informal settlements are unsuitable for habitation due to factors like inadequate ventilation for proper breathing, and natural temperature regulation, and poor structural integrity against heavy winds and floods. The housing policy indicates that around 40% of constructed houses are substandard, further worsening the vulnerability of the urban poor as poverty forces them to build structures that reduce their adaptive capacities.

Recognising the urgent need to advocate for and deliver low-cost housing for the urban poor to increase human security against climate change, PPHPZ and the federation piloted a locally-led process of financing low-cost, green, and resilient housing. In 2022, the construction of 55 houses was completed and subsequently delivered to the intended beneficiaries. The acquiring of land and construction was spearheaded by the Zambia Homeless and Poor People’s Federation who provided sweat equity and contributed their savings towards the construction of the houses. The residents of slums have valuable knowledge and insights about their own needs and priorities. Participatory slum upgrading aims to empower communities, enhance social cohesion and address the specific challenges faced by slum dwellers.

PPHPZ and the Zambia Homeless and Poor People’s Federation promote low-cost, green, and resilient housing. The construction of the houses was executed by the community members without any heavy machinery and the houses were built with clay bricks, which is one of the most eco-friendly construction materials during its entire life cycle. The low-cost, green, and resilient housing incorporates adequate insulation, proper waste management systems and proper supply of clean water. By integrating green and resilient measures into housing, we can lower emissions, conserve resources, and mitigate climate change.

This initiative significantly reduces the vulnerability of the urban poor to climate impacts. The financing mechanism involves various stakeholders complementing the federation’s local actions and savings. The grassroots mobilised their limited resources for land acquisition, and both the Stanbic Bank and the government are providing technical and financial support for housing construction. Although the initiative was purely a housing initiative, the Amplifying Voices for Just Climate Action (VCA) programme has worked tirelessly to popularise this union and mobilise other stakeholders to support the green building component that will not only reduce emissions but increase human safety in the face of climate change. As a result, PPHPZ signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Institute of Architects to support green building practices. The importance of housing in the climate space is gradually gaining recognition, and PPHPZ is leading the discourse by leveraging local knowledge and experiences from affected communities.

In light of the aforementioned, key actions are necessary is for the government to create a housing fund specifically dedicated to low-cost and social housing in high-risk areas affected by climate impacts. This fund can emulate the existing PPHPZ-Federation and Stanbic Bank model, which prioritises communities and their resources. Additionally, funding and prioritising slum upgrading is essential as it enables improvements in housing and infrastructure while attracting investment.