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Children work to make Dhaka’s urban slums safer

Children led me through the tight winding lanes of the Bihari camp, a slum in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. They were helping to carry out a survey on natural hazards in the area.  I could see slum houses stretching off into the distance. Long, narrow and no more than a metre wide, the rubbish-strewn lanes between the houses were filled with people carrying metal polls for house building, and others taking food and chickens to market.

A family of eight lived inside the one-room home. The youth group that I was  training to carry out surveys was interviewing its household head – the grandfather of one of the participants. It was a small, dark room with a hearth, where all of the family’s possessions were located.

Waterlogging, disease and fire

This type of accommodation is typical in these areas. You could see what this area would be like when a disaster, or even a minor calamity struck. Waterlogging (where water from heavy rain sits for days sometimes a half a metre high) is a huge risk. When the polluted water from the single toilet block in the sector (used by several hundred people) overflows, the rubbish is washed down the street, entering people’s houses and contaminating their processions.

Looking around at the tightly packed slum area, with its winding streets of wood, metal and low grade material, I also realised how terrifying a fire – one of the most common disasters in an urban slum would be. Fires caused by faulty electrical wiring or stray sparks are common, and they can completely destroy neighbourhoods.

Young people define the risks

Back in the office the youth group reported on what they had found out.  We asked them to use the information gathered to make a risk and resource map of the local area, showing who was most vulnerable and why. People living in multi-story buildings were vulnerable to it collapsing in an earthquake, and those living near the toilet block were more vulnerable from disease because of the high risk of overflow when the rains came.

And who was most vulnerable in these situations we asked? Women have to stay in their homes, because that is where they work. So, when there is water logging they cannot leave. Because it’s not culturally acceptable for women to run, if there is a fire they often cannot get away fast enough.

Young people define the solutions

We asked the young people how to reduce the risks. They said:

  • install communal fire extinguishers
  • ask people to run to open spaces (there are several in the slum) when disaster strikes
  • issue vulnerable families with waterproof boxes so that their processions would remain dry during floods
  • more rubbish collections carried out by the local authority so there was less rubbish in the local area which can worsen water logging
  • proper roofs on the toilet blocks so that rains would not flood the toilet blocks.

Who needs to be involved to help you get these things accomplished? They said they need to involve the fire brigade, the local MP, the local Ward Commissioner, imans, local professionals, such as architect doctors and engineers, community elders and many others.

Moving on and up

The next step is to work out how best to approach these local elites and  authorities they’ve identified so they can help implement the plans that the youth group have put forward.

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