By Mike Davis
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Ecology against Capitalism: Slum Ecology

This article is over 18 years, 9 months old
Urban poverty and climatic hazards are a deadly cocktail for millions, as Mike Davis explains.
Issue 298

A villa miseria outside Buenos Aires may have the world’s worst fenshui: it is built ‘over a former lake, a toxic dump, and a cemetery, and in a flood zone’. But then a hazardous, health-threatening location is the geographical definition of the typical squatters’ settlement: whether it is a barrio perched precariously on stilts over the excrement-clogged Pasig River in Manila, or the bustee in Vijayawada where ‘residents have door numbers written on pieces of furniture because the houses, along with the doors, [are] washed away by floods every year’.

Squatters trade physical safety and public health for a few square metres of land and some security against eviction. They are the pioneer settlers of swamps, floodplains, volcano slopes, unstable hillsides, rubbish mountains, chemical dumps, and desert fringes. Visiting Dhaka, Jeremy Seabrook describes a small slum – ‘a refuge for people displaced by erosion, cyclones, floods, famine, or that more recent generator of insecurity, development’ – that has found a Faustian bargain in a precarious ledge of land between a toxic factory and a ‘poisoned lake’. Precisely because the site is so hazardous and unattractive it offers ‘protection from rising land values in the city’. Such sites are poverty’s niche in the ecology of the city, and very poor people have little choice but to live with disaster.

Slums begin with bad geology. Johannesburg’s shantytown periphery, for example, conforms unerringly to a belt of dangerous, unstable dolomitic soil contaminated by generations of mining. At least half of the region’s non-white population live in informal settlements in areas of toxic waste and chronic ground collapse. Likewise, the highly weathered lateritic soils underlying hillside favelas in Belo Horizonte and other Brazilian cities are catastrophically prone to slope failure and landslides. Rio de Janeiro’s more famous favelas are built on equally unstable soils atop denuded granite domes and hillsides which frequently give way with truly deadly results: 2,000 killed in debris flows in 1966-67, 200 in 1988, and 70 at Christmas 2001.

Caracas, however, is the soil geologist’s perfect storm. Slums housing almost two thirds of the urban population are built on unstable hillsides and in deep gorges surrounding the seismically active Caracas Valley. Originally vegetation held the friable, highly-weathered schist in place, but brush clearance and cut-and-fill construction have destabilised the densely inhabited hillsides. The result has been an extraordinary increase in major landslides and slope failures, from less than 1 per decade before 1950 to the present average of two or more per month. Increasing soil instability, however, has failed to prevent squatters from colonising precarious perches on the hillsides, on the slopes of alluvial fans, or in the mouths of regularly flooded canyons.

In mid-December 1999 northern Venezuela was clobbered by a monstrous storm. A year’s average rain fell in a few days upon already saturated soil: indeed, rainfall in some areas was reckoned to be ‘a once in a 1,000 year’ event. Flash floods and debris flows in Caracas and especially along the Caribbean coast on the other side of the Avila mountains killed an estimated 32,000 people, left 140,000 homeless and another 200,000 jobless. A Catholic prelate implied that it was divine retribution for the recent election of the leftist government of Hugo Chavez, but foreign minister Jose Vincente Rangel said, ‘It would be a harsh god who took out his vengeance on the poorest section of the community.’

What the Caracas region is to landslides, Metro Manila is to frequent flooding. Situated in a semi-alluvial floodplain bordered by three river basins and subject to torrential rains and typhoons, Manila is a natural flood basin. After 1898 American colonial authorities dug canals, dredged tidal channels (esteros), and built pumping stations to drain storm waters and protect the central parts of the city. Improvements in the system over recent years, however, have been counteracted by vast volumes of waste dumped into drains and esteros (the bottom of the Pasiq River is supposedly a 12-foot deep deposit of refuse); subsidence due to over-extraction of ground water; the deforestation of the Marikina and Montalban watersheds; and, most of all, the ceaseless encroachment of shanty housing into wetlands.

The housing crisis, in other words, has transformed both the character and magnitude of the flood problem, with the poorest fifth of the population exposed to regular danger and property loss. In November 1998, for example, flooding damaged or destroyed the homes of more than 300,000 people, and on another occasion the squatter colony of Tatlon was drowned under more than six metres of water.

The devil’s bargain

The Caracas and Manila examples illustrate how poverty augments local geological and climatic hazards. Wealthy cities in hazardous sites like Los Angeles or Tokyo can reduce geological or meteorological risk through massive public works and ‘hard engineering’: stabilising landslides with geotextile nets and rock bolts; terracing and regrading oversteep hillsides; drilling deep drainage wells and pumping water out of saturated soils; intercepting debris flows with small dams and basins; and channelling storm runoff into vast systems of concrete channels and sewers. National flood insurance programmes, together with cross-subsidisation of fire and earthquake insurance, guarantee residential repair and rebuilding in the event of extensive damage.

In the Third World, by contrast, slums that lack potable water and latrines are unlikely to be defended by expensive public works or covered by disaster insurance. Foreign debt and subsequent ‘structural adjustment’, two leading researchers emphasise, drive sinister ‘trade-offs between production, competition and efficiency, and adverse environmental consequences in terms of potentially disaster-vulnerable settlements’.

State intervention itself can be a risk multiplier. In November 2001 the poor districts of Bab el Oued, Frais Vallong and Beaux Fraisier on the western side of Algiers were struck by devastating floods and mudslides. For 36 hours torrential rain washed fragile shacks from hillsides and flooded low-lying tenement neighbourhoods. At least 900 people were killed. In the face of a laggardly official response, rescue efforts were mounted instead by local people, particularly the youth. Three days afterwards President Abdelaziz Bouteflika showed up. Angry residents shouted anti-government slogans. ‘Bouteflika made matters worse for himself and for the state by declaring that the disaster was simply the will of god. Nothing, he said, could be done about that.’

Locals knew this was nonsense. As civil engineers immediately pointed out, the hillside dwellings were a disaster waiting to happen: ‘These were weak structures vulnerable to heavy rain. Across the country, these kind of housing constructions have suffered much damage from rain because of degradation, inadequate repair, aging and neglect.’ Even more to the point, much of the destruction was a direct consequence of the government’s war against Islamist guerrillas. To deny insurgents hiding places and escape routes, the authorities had deforested the hills above Bab el Oued and sealed the sewers. The blocked drains left rain waters with nowhere to go. Corrupt authorities also gave permits for shoddy housing and other construction in the riverbed, enriching individual contractors at the expense of public safety.

Even more than landslides and floods, earthquakes make precise audits of the urban housing crisis. Although some long-wavelength quakes, like the 1985 Mexico City disaster, single out tall buildings, seismic destruction usually maps with uncanny accuracy to poor quality brick, mud or concrete residential housing, especially when associated with slope failure and soil liquefaction. Seismic hazard is the fine print in the devil’s bargain of informal housing. ‘Relaxed attitudes to planning regulations and standards’, emphasizes Geoffrey Payne, ‘ have enabled the urban poor in Turkey to obtain relatively easy access to land and services for many decades, yet a similar attitude to the enforcement of building regulations led to a heavy death toll and massive destruction when earthquakes struck in 1999.’

Earthquakes destroyed more than 100 million homes during the 20th century, mostly in slums, tenement districts or poor rural villages. With the majority of the world’s urban population now concentrated on or near active plate margins, especially along Indian and Pacific Ocean littorals, several billion people are at risk from earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis, as well as from storm surges and typhoons. If the December 2004 Sumatra mega-earthquake and tsunami were relatively rare events, others are virtually inevitable within the next century. Istanbul gecekondus, for example, are the ultimate bull’s-eye for the earthquakes creeping inexorably westward along the ‘opening zipper’ of the North Anatolia transform fault system. Likewise, Lima authorities predict that at least 100,000 structures – mostly in the turgurios and barriadas – will collapse during the major earthquake expected in the next generation. Seismic risk is so unevenly distributed in these cities that the term ‘classquake’ was coined by radical geographers to characterise the biased pattern of past and future destruction.

Death clouds and flying coffins

If natural hazards are magnified by urban poverty, new and entirely artificial hazards are created by poverty’s interactions with toxic industries, anarchic traffic and collapsing infrastructures. All the classic principles of urban planning, including the preservation of open space and the separation of noxious land uses from residences, are stood on their heads in poor cities.

In his book on poor cities of the South, Jeremy Seabrook chronicles the relentless calendar of disaster in Klong Toey, Bangkok’s port slum sandwiched between docks, chemical factories and expressways. In 1989 a chemical explosion poisoned hundreds of residents; two years later a chemical warehouse exploded and left 5,500 residents homeless – many of whom would later die from mysterious illnesses. Fire destroyed 63 homes in 1992, 460 homes in 1993 (also the year of another chemical explosion), and several hundred more in 1994. Thousands of other slums, including some in rich countries, have similar histories to Klong Toey. They suffer from the ‘garbage dump syndrome’: the concentration of toxic industrial activities like metal plating, dyeing, rendering, tanning, battery recycling, casting, vehicle repair, chemical manufacture, and so on, which middle classes would never tolerate in their own districts.

The world usually pays attention to such fatal admixtures of poverty and toxic industry only when they explode with mass casualties; 1984 was the annus horribilus. In February a gasoline pipeline exploded in Cubatao, Sao Paulo’s ‘Pollution Valley’, and burned more than 500 people to death in an adjacent favela. Eight months later a Pemex liquefied natural gas plant exploded like an atomic bomb in Mexico City’s San Juanico district, killing as many 2,000 poor residents (no accurate count of mortality was ever established).

Less than three weeks after the Mexico City holocaust, the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, released its infamous cloud of deadly methyl isocynate; according to a 2004 study by Amnesty International, 7,000 to 10,000 people perished immediately and another 15,000 died in subsequent years from related illnesses and cancers. The victims were the poorest of the poor, mainly Muslims. The pesticide packaging plant had been constructed on a site already long occupied by squatters. As the plant expanded and changed over to the more dangerous production of pesticides, bustees burgeoned around its periphery. Up to the moment when they found their children dying in the streets, poor squatters had no idea of what was produced in the plant or the apocalyptic hazard posed by methyl isocynate.

Slum dwellers, on the other hand, are acutely aware of the dangers posed by the wild traffic that gridlocks the streets of most Third World cities. Sprawling urban growth without counterpart social investment in mass transit or grade-separated highways has made traffic a public-health catastrophe. In spite of nightmarish congestion, motor vehicle use in developing cities is soaring. In 1980 the Third World accounted for only 18 percent of global vehicle ownership; by 2020, about half of the world’s projected 1.3 billion cars, trucks and buses – along with several hundred million motorbikes and scooters – will clog the streets and alleys of poorer countries.

The automobile population explosion is driven by powerful forces of inequality. Transport policy in most cities is a vicious circle in which the declining quality of public transport reinforces private auto use and vice versa. The result is sheer carnage. More than 1 million people – two thirds of them pedestrians, cyclists and passengers – are killed in road accidents in the Third World each year. ‘People who will never own a car in their life’, reports a World Health Organisation (WHO) researcher, ‘are at the greatest risk.’ Minibuses and jitneys, often unlicensed and poorly maintained, are particularly dangerous. In Lagos the buses are known locally as dangos and molue, ‘flying coffins’ and ‘moving morgues’. The snail’s pace of traffic in most poor cities doesn’t seem to reduce its lethality. Although cars and buses crawl through Cairo at average speeds of less than ten kilometres per hour, the Egyptian capital still manages an accident rate of eight deaths and 60 injuries per 1,000 automobiles per year. In Lagos, where the average resident spends an incredible three hours each day marooned in angry gridlock, private commuters and minibus drivers literally go berserk. Indeed so many drivers jump curbs, or drive on the wrong side of the road, that the traffic ministry has recently imposed mandatory psychiatric tests on offenders. In Delhi, meanwhile, the Hindustan Times recently complained that middle class commuters seldom bother to stop after running over homeless rag pickers or poor children.

The overall economic cost of road deaths and injuries, according to the WHO, is estimated as ‘almost twice the total development assistance received worldwide by developing countries’. The WHO, indeed, considers traffic to be one of the worst health hazards facing the urban poor and predicts that road accidents by 2020 will be the third leading cause of death. China, where cars are wresting control of urban streets from bicycles and pedestrians, will unfortunately lead the way: almost one quarter of a million Chinese were killed or seriously injured in traffic accidents in the first five months of 2003 alone.

Rampant motorisation, of course, is also exacerbating the nightmare of air pollution in Third World cities. Myriads of old cars, beat-up buses and superannuated trucks asphyxiate urban areas with their deadly exhaust, while the dirty two-stroke engines that power small vehicles emit ten times as much fine particulate matter as modern cars. According to a recent study, foul air is most deadly in the sprawling megacities of Mexico (300 bad ozone smog days per year), São Paulo, Delhi and Beijing. Breathing Bombay’s air likewise is the equivalent of smoking two and one half packs of cigarettes per day, and the Centre for Science and the Environment in Delhi recently warned that Indian cities were ‘becoming lethal gas chambers’.

The poor in Third World cities, public-health experts tell us, bear a ‘double burden’ of illness: the deadly infectious diseases generated by urban pollutants and stress. With an estimated 1 billion slum dwellers on the planet (the number is expected to double by 2030), urban poverty is also creating new disease ecologies and opening pathways for plagues like HIV/Aids and avian influenza. Even more than in the age of Marx and Dickens, the slum is the global health and environmental issue par excellence. It is also the greatest challenge to human solidarity.

This is an edited extract from Mike Davis’s forthcoming book City of Slums (Verso)

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