People living in informal settlements in Bangladesh face a multitude of challenges. The capital city of Dhaka alone has some 5,000 slums, which are characterised by overcrowding and limited access to basic services like clean water, sanitation and electricity.
Each day, an estimated 2,000 people move to Dhaka, with many displaced by rising sea levels and tropical storms, and often these new arrivals move into informal settlements. More than 1.8 million people in Bangladesh live in informal settlements, according to the country’s 2022 census.
In these neighbourhoods, insecure tenure threaten residents’ safety and security, with many living in fear of eviction or loss of their homes to fire or floods. Unsafe building practices mean people also face homes made of flimsy building materials, crowded neighbourhoods, and electrical wires running haphazardly across roofs and walking paths.
Many homes are held together with whatever materials residents can gather and repurpose – including poles and plastic sheeting not meant for construction use. In the Beguntila informal settlement, houses like this one are in danger of collapse, particularly during the rainy season.
Weather poses another risk to residents of informal settlements, such as families living in Dhaka’s Duaripara community. Inadequate stormwater drainage means that walkways – and the homes that line them – flood during periods of heavy rain, particularly during the 3-month rainy season that starts each July. In addition to damaging walking paths and houses, standing water can contain dangerous chemicals and lead to the spread of infectious diseases.
Another health hazard stems from inadequate sewage disposal. On average, 15 households – almost 70 people – share a single toilet in Dhaka’s informal settlements. In the Beguntila informal settlement, flood runoff combines with sewage to create dangerous conditions just steps from a family’s home. Poor sanitation heightens the risk of contracting life-threatening diarrheal diseases, typhoid and intestinal infections.
Despite their fragile nature, homes in informal settlements may also serve as places of work for residents. In Beguntila, finding employment can be a challenge, particularly when inadequate housing doesn’t support people working from home. Mim works in her darkened home making clothing on a loom.
Access To Electricity
Many jobs depend on having access to electricity, which can be expensive and inconsistent in informal settlements. Suborna works on her computer doing data entry from her home in Beguntila. Her income supports the family because her widowed mother is ill.
Beguntila, a four-acre informal settlement created in 199, is now home to 700 families. The community is overcrowded, and housing remains inadequate. The settlement’s early years were particularly difficult. Recalls Raje, a longtime resident, “The mud was knee-high. The (rain)waters came up to the waist.” The settlement now has access to clean water and is connected to the government’s electricity grid, but poor drainage remains a problem.
In Duaripara, cooking facilities are often inadequate. Having an open flame indoors without adequate ventilation can contribute to breathing problems and increase the risk of accidental fires. Fires can also start from discarded cigarette butts or mosquito coils, exploding gas cylinders, or burning wood. Blazes spread rapidly through houses that are built close together, and the narrow streets and lack of hydrants in informal settlements make it difficult for firefighters to respond.
Despite facing many challenges, residents of informal settlements are working together to create positive change and transform their neighbourhoods. Since 2015, Sahana has led the community water, sanitation and hygiene committee in Duaripara. Sahana and other community members took training courses to build their skills in masonry and carpentry, proper hygiene, and waste management. A few years ago, they successfully obtained approval from local officials to repair roads, construct new toilets and install a drainage system in partnership with nongovernmental organisations.
During a recent fire in Duaripara, Sahana and her neighbours responded quickly when they saw the smoke, rushing to evacuate nearby residents. Five housing units were demolished because of the damage they sustained. Recognising the danger of fire in the informal settlement, Sahana and other residents remain vigilant. She says, “As members of the water, sanitation and hygiene committee, our responsibility is to check in on people. We should help somebody in distress and vice versa. Whenever we see a fire… the priority is to evacuate women, older people and children.”
Sahana and Sumi are recognised in their neighbourhood as leaders. They and the other committee members were elected by residents to help improve their community. The most successful and lasting improvements are those that come from within the informal settlement. For example, the committee helped persuade residents to stop using “hanging toilets,” where waste fell untreated into the water below, and to use hygienic toilets instead.
The work of community leaders from informal settlements like Dhaka’s is essential to ensuring equitable access to adequate housing. With coordinated efforts at all levels, we can advance policies and level the playing field so everyone has an equal shot at a decent home.