Views from the frontline: What do everyday risks look like when you live in an informal settlement?

Jackie Waithaka, SDI Kenya’s communications officer, reflects on risk surveys conducted earlier this year by Mukuru residents and the Muungano Alliance in the Nairobi informal settlements of Mukuru kwa Reuben, Mukuru kwa Njenga and Viwandani.

A VFL meeting in Mukuru, late 2018. Photo: Kate Lines

A VFL meeting in Mukuru, late 2018. Photo: Kate Lines

The Muungano alliance collected data and survey responses in five informal residential areas across Mukuru Kwa Reuben, Mukuru Kwa Njenga and Viwandani. These aimed to understand the challenges and local responses to risks and threats that the community faces within their settlements. Then, residents met together to reflect on the results and rank key threats, local actions, and priorities for change. The work uses a methodology called ‘views from the front line’, a tool which has been developed by the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction (GNDR).



Nairobi’s rapid increase in size and population in recent decades has led to significant changes. The economy may have been bolstered, but with poorly-regulated urban growth has emerged risks for its residents. Many of these risks are highly concentrated in the city’s informal settlements and are a way of life for people living there. In Mukuru, one of Nairobi’s biggest informal settlements, uninsulated electricity cables hang overhead, precariously close to housing structures. Sewage lines run underfoot alongside the piped networks that supply water points where residents queue to get ‘clean’ water. The inadequate sanitation facilities have led to disease outbreaks in Mukuru, such as its recent cholera outbreak. But most families can’t afford good quality medical care.

A road in Mukuru, Nairobi. Photo: Muungano KYCTV (Anami Ture)

A road in Mukuru, Nairobi. Photo: Muungano KYCTV (Anami Ture)


So, communities in urban informal settlements face multiple and interconnected risks. And these impact negatively on their wellbeing. Findings from large scale assessments of risks by the GNDR show that losses faced by communities are mainly the result of small scale, recurrent, everyday disasters. There are different underlying factors in relation to these risks, and practical recommendations can be aimed at increasing people’s resilience to risks. Getting a clear understanding of the factors that shape these risks is necessary to develop interventions that reduce them—whether these interventions are the responsibility of local authorities or can be begun by communities themselves. Through, firstly, data collection, and then resident verification/ownership of this data, the ‘views from the front line’ tool aims to help communities identify and understand the different types of hazards, vulnerabilities, and threats that they face. It is designed to strengthen local capacities for learning and action in the face of everyday disasters, supporting communities to discuss and share with each other the strategies and innovations that might strengthen their local capacity to build to resilience.  

Mukuru’s front line: a few of our findings

A VFL meeting in Mukuru. Photo: Kate Lines

A VFL meeting in Mukuru. Photo: Kate Lines

During the Muungano survey, participating residents were purposively sampled from every ten households in each village (or ‘cluster’). They were asked about different types of risks, the consequences of the risks they identified, what actions they are aware of or have taken to address these consequences, and what they see as the barriers to actions.

Implementing the VFL tool in the different Mukuru villages brought to light many varied threats that Mukuru residents face within their neighbourhoods—for example from unemployment to flooding, to lack of sanitation facilities and insecurity.

Mukuru’s population growth has meant that residents settle in areas that are vulnerable to natural hazards like flooding, such as wetland areas—building on these areas leaves Mukuru residents at great risk from to the consequences of these hazards.

“Flooding leads to lost lives and property. Actions to address the consequences of flooding could be demolition of houses built along the river. But residential density/congestion is a major barrier to this”— Female resident of Gatoto village in Kwa Reuben (18–25).

Mukuru residents also face a particularly acute risk of crime and violence, with a great need to implement appropriate intervention measures.

Insecurity creates fear among residents living in the area. Some of the actions undertaken so far include installing community security lights to help boost security. However, there are still gangs of youth involved in crime.— Male resident of Vietnum village in Kwa Njenga area (>26).

The exercise also identified five very pressing threats that are common to residents across all the settlement areas surveyed: fire outbreaks, insecurity, rapid spread of disease/poor health standards, flooding and poor drainage, and lack of access to clean water for domestic use.

And it acknowledged both visible risks and chronic hidden threats such as poverty and food insecurity.


Towards successes at the front line

Local authorities, organisations and community groups need to have a better understanding of the risks and vulnerabilities that informal settlement communities are exposed to—from the everyday and small scale to devastating large-scale disasters such as fire outbreaks and the rapid spread of diseases.

The declaration in August 2017 of Mukuru as a special planning area acts as one rallying point, creating space for different actors to work together in identifying many of the challenges and everyday risks faced by Mukuru’s residents, aiming to come up with sustainable solutions to some of the kinds of risks identified through the VFL tool.

In the past year, as the VFL tool was rolled out in some of the villages in Mukuru, we have sought to capture residents experiences of the consequences of these threats, practical actions to address the consequences, and their understanding of the barriers to action—and to feed these findings into the SPA process. As it’s well-known, residents from Mukuru grapple with many risks every day, such as lack of access to adequate water, sanitation services, quality health care among others. The ongoing SPA process aims to improve the current situation and address these risks through providing an opportunity where residents come up with an integrated development plan which will provide ways of improving the environment, manage waste, improve access to proper health care among various other challenges residents face within their locality.

The roll out of the tool has helped in developing an in-depth understanding of some of the dynamics surrounding the identified threats and offered grounds for the residents to come up with short term as well as long term actions to address the threats. From conducting community sensitization and awareness on hygiene as a strategy on combating rapid spread of diseases to engaging local leaders to negotiate for quality services at the settlement level, the residents brainstormed on some of the immediate and long term solutions to some of the risks identified.

A Mukuru community clean-up. Photo: Muungano KYCTV (Mariah Mumbi)

A Mukuru community clean-up. Photo: Muungano KYCTV (Mariah Mumbi)


Residents from Riara and Jamaica villages are already going further, and are the first areas starting to implement some of the suggested short term solutions and applying some of the actions discussed in the VFL exercises. Since poor drainage systems were understood to be a main cause of disastrous flooding, community residents from Jamaica village have initiated community clean ups to unblock some of the drainage systems. And  residents from Riara are engaging local area leaders in a bid to address insecurity by negotiating for reinstallation of community streetlights.

It is still early days, but in Mukuru the VFL tool is proving an effective approach to identifying some of the most prominent threats and risks informal settlement residents face, and the different ways of addressing these, in a bid to make communities safe and inclusive for all.