Slumdog Engineer

Having discussed the possible environmental risks of charitable aid in the form of obsolete electronic goods to the developing world, it seemed to timely to mention other research looking into strong solutions to some of the critical problems facing people in many parts of the world.

Researchers, Priti Parikh and Allan McRobie, in Cambridge, England, suggest that the current cocktail of approaches used to address poverty in the slums often stretches scarce resource too far. Interventions in health, education, physical improvements, and governance often cement in place the “poverty” mindset and set the slums apart from the urban infrastructure by using minimal paving, having public water posts and community latrines.

These two engineers have researched an alternative approach known as Slum Networking, which was pioneered by Himanshu Parikh. This approach is holistic and proposes comprehensive water and environmental sanitation infrastructure as being central to improving the slums not by locking them into disadvantaged islands of deprivation but by assimilating them into a city’s high-quality urban infrastructure.

Slum networking avoids the resource bottleneck and gets over the significant barriers people face when they are given the label “poor” and simply offered “aid”. Some facts about people:

  • More than a billion people worldwide have no access to an improved water source
  • 2.5 billion do not have access to improved sanitation
  • Almost 2.5 billion of the people without improved sanitation are among those hardest to reach: families living in remote rural areas and urban slums, refugees and those trapped by poverty and disease.
  • Of the 1.1 billion people with no access to an improved water source, 42% live in Sub-Saharan Africa
  • In South Asia, fewer than four out of every ten people has access to improved sanitation.
  • UNICEF/WHO in their 2004 report explain that without rapid improvements half a billion people will never see improved sanitation.

The researchers have examined how slum networking was implemented in Sanjaynagar in Ahmedabad, India, and compared it with a similar settlement that had none of these interventions in another part of the city. The success of slum networking suggests that it might be used more widely and in other parts of the world.

Moreover, the paradigm shift in thinking about poverty that it suggests, which in essence recognises people as people regardless of their wealth, or lack of it, could serve as model to improving the lot of millions of people across the globe regardless of whether or not their domicile has been given the tag of “slum”.

The team describes how their study validates the technical approach of slum networking and shows enormous community benefits. “Our study proves that physical infrastructure rapidly alleviates poverty with tangible improvements in health, education, disposable incomes and quality of life,” the researchers explain. “It shows that huge investment multipliers have been achieved as a result of infrastructure development and the partnerships. The key reported reason for community investments is the provision of individual facilities at low costs.”

Parikh studied engineering in India and worked there as a development engineer on slum improvement projects and as a volunteer after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. She has now completed her PhD focusing on water and environmental sanitation in slums in India and South Africa under McRobie’s supervision in the Department of Engineering at Cambridge.

Research Blogging IconParikh, P., & McRobie, A. (2009). Engineering as a tool for improving human habitat International Journal of Management and Decision Making, 10 (3/4) DOI: 10.1504/IJMDM.2009.024993