Initiatives & Infrastructure Upgrades With A Focus On Community Development

John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself” to describe the interconnectedness of man and humanity. Accordingly, vulnerability to natural hazards is not an insular condition, but comprised of a wide range of societal and environmental factors. To improve a population’s ability to mitigate the impacts of a natural hazard, a development model targeting entire communities is necessary. In other words, thorough development work can combat vulnerability and decreases the probability of disaster. Nairobi’s measures to reduce flood risk provide an example of how development work plays a crucial role in reducing vulnerability to disaster.


Current trends in migration and mass urbanization, combined with growing disparities in wealth, often results in the most vulnerable populations inhabiting the locations most exposed to potential disasters. Nairobi’s informal settlements are model examples of indigent communities forced to reside in locations that suffer the effects of cyclical natural hazards. Built on the flood plains of Nairobi’s three major rivers, each settlement is subject to the repetitive impacts of seasonal inundations. To mitigate the resulting impacts on these communities, it is necessary to establish resettlement initiatives and infrastructure upgrades with a focus on community development. History has shown that Nairobi’s habitually marginalized slum dwellers need to be included in the institutional framework if vulnerability reduction strategies are to be trusted and adopted.

Resettlement Initiatives

With 60% of Nairobi’s 4.3 million residents living in urban slums, relocation as a comprehensive solution is not economically infeasible. However, relocation can provide a valuable contribution to reducing vulnerability on the condition that community development is a priority. The Kenya Slum Upgrading Project (KENSUP) established by the Kenyan Ministry of Housing and UN-Habitat serves as an example of the negative impact community exclusion can have on a well-intentioned relocation project. Designed to resettle inhabitants of Nairobi’s slums into secure housing with improved sanitary infrastructure and protection from flooding, KENSUP’s success has been marred by criticism over poor community engagement. Interviews conducted by Amnesty International indicate a lack of effective consultation with residents during the planning phase. Further, UN-Habitat reported that the majority of participants interviewed believed that the temporary resettlement during construction would result in diminished social networks and income sources.

Consequently, displaced slum residents chose to instead relocate within the slums, resulting in mostly middle-class people and students occupying the new resettlement housing. The failure to adopt an inclusive community development approach to resettlement resulted in poor community buy-in and could prove detrimental to future phases of the project.KENSUP can learn not only from its mistakes, but also from the success of a similar project. The informal settlements of Voi, Kenya suffered similar vulnerabilities to flooding and environmental hazards, but a more inclusive approach to resettlement resulted in favorable outcomes.

The local government of Voi designed a community development model that ensured community participation in all stages of the project. For example, the community had input into the process for recovering costs, and land tenure was in the community’s name; additionally, external organizations were ancillary to local efforts. The end result was viewed as a success and received the UN-HABITAT award in 1996.

Infrastructure Upgrades

Since it is infeasible to resettle all of Nairobi’s informal settlements, infrastructure upgrades are necessary to mitigate the effects of seasonal flooding. Nairobi’s floods are generally the result of solid waste blocking drains, sewers, and rivers. With 60% of the city’s population residing in 5% of the city’s land, the slums are disproportionately burdened by waste accumulation due to extreme population density. Therefore, the expansion of waste collection and improved drainage systems could significantly decrease vulnerability. However, as with other development projects, long-term sustainable progress is dependent on community involvement and capacity building.

Kenya’s government, acknowledging the risk posed by poor infrastructure, developed the National Youth Service (NYS) program to improve waste collection and drainage, and construct sewers and ablution blocks. Utilizing a training and capacity building model, NYS enjoyed community support and developed a legacy that led to further community resilience. Former NYS graduates have continued to employ their skillset by training other community volunteers in risk reduction strategies.


The interconnectivity of development, vulnerability, and disaster is inescapable. Kenya’s urban floods demonstrate the causal effect of and relationship between the three. To reduce human, economic, and other losses due to floods, Kenyan communities need to take collective action to reduce vulnerability. When communities lack the capacity to do so, it is the responsibility of outside organizations to implement development initiatives.

03 December 2019
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