Minimising the flood risk in Kathmandu: Factors affecting riverbank informal settlers’ physical adaptation

By Neeraj Dangol

Informal settlements in Kathmandu are increasing in size and number (Lumanti, 2008, UN-Habitat, 2015). The housing demand in the city is increasing due to population growth and migration, resulting in rising housing prices (Shrestha, 2013).

The high cost of housing means it is difficult for the low-income group to afford necessary housing. The government has not addressed the necessity of affordable housing for the low-income group. In this situation, some people of low-income build their dwellings on public land without legal title (Sengupta and Sharma, 2006). This phenomenon has added to the number of informal settlers in the city.

Most of the informal settlements in Kathmandu are located in floodplains, putting them at flood risk (UN Habitat, 2015). Annual monsoon season flood incidents in recent years demonstrate how these riverbank informal settlements are at risk. These flooding incidents drench and wash away the belongings of many settlers, forcing them to leave their house and spend nights outside (Rai, 2015). Many riverbank informal settlers have poorly constructed dwellings which increases the risk of impacts of recurring flooding incidents. Informal settlers need to take initiatives themselves to reduce their flooding risk as government assistance is absent. Moreover, the government considers the informal settlements unlawful as they are built on public land without any authority. Therefore, there is always the possibility of their eviction by the government. For example, the government forcefully evicted Thapathali, a riverbank informal settlement, by bulldozing dwellings in May 2012 leaving 251 families with nowhere to go and without any alternative accommodation (Ghimire, 2012). When a successful or attempted eviction occurs, it not only affects the settlement where the action occurs but also influences other informal settlers by raising their fear of eviction (Paul, 2006).

Survival of non-metropolitans in the metropolis.

This thesis aims to investigate how informal settlers perceive flood risk and the security of tenure, and how these perceptions influence their physical adaptive improvements to minimise flood risk. Following this aim, the thesis attempts to answer the following research question:  How do perceptions of flood risk and tenure security affect the riverbank informal settlers’ physical adaptive measures to minimise flood risk in Kathmandu? What other factors affect these adaptive measures?

The thesis identifies gaps in current studies that analyse the relationship between the physical adaptation, the perceived hazard risk, and the perceived tenure security. A few studies (Jabeen and Johnson, 2013, Nehren et al., 2013, Nyakundi et al., 2010) mention the relationship between the physical adaptation and the perception of the hazard risk, but they do not analyse how different levels of risk perception affect the level of adaptation. Similarly, studies on the relationship between perceived tenure security and housing improvements by informal settlers are available (De Souza, 1998, van Gelder, 2009, Reerink and van Gelder, 2010); however they do not consider the adaptive changes or improvements implemented to respond to the hazard risk. Therefore, to the address these gaps, this thesis attempts to answer the research question. The thesis also explores other factors affecting adaptation such as demographics, socio-economic characteristics and engagement in community networks. The thesis includes exploration of other factors that can influence informal settlers’ physical adaptation because these factors can affect the relationships of perceived tenure security and perceived hazard risk with the adaptation.

The thesis study area includes three informal settlements situated along the Bagmati River, the largest in Kathmandu. The thesis employs a qualitative approach to understand and analyse the variables of perceived flood risk, perceived tenure security and physical adaptation. Data is collected through semi-structured interviews and analysed by means of thematic analysis.

The thesis attempts to provide an in-depth understanding of informal settlers’ perceptions of tenure security and flood risk, and to analyse their relationship to adaptation practices. The understanding and the analyses can fill gaps in the current academic literature. This can also be useful to studies and programs which include issues related to self-adaptation by informal settlers. Moreover, the thesis will develop a tool to assess the physical adaptive measures implemented by informal settlers in their dwellings. This tool can be applied with modification to other informal settlements to assess their adaptation practices.

In the case of Nepal, the thesis findings provide recommendations for the formulation of policies and programs to reduce the flood risk of riverbank informal settlements. For example, if the findings suggest that those who perceive more secure tenure tend to have a higher level of adaptation, then policies to enhance the perception of tenure security would be recommended. Findings and recommendations of the thesis can be utilised by organisations, community leaders and activists who are working on the issues of informal settlements giving them a voice and drawing the attention of government to the issue of flood risk reduction.