Residents of informal settlements confront challenges head-on

Inadequate housing risks their health, their educational opportunities and their prospects for earning a living. Read about how people living in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, try to overcome obstacles.

People living in informal settlements face a multitude of challenges. In Bangladesh, the capital city of Dhaka alone has some 5,000 slums, which are characterized by overcrowding and limited access to basic services like clean water, sanitation and electricity.

An informal settlement in Bangladesh from above, with rusting corrugated metal roofs and a narrow pathway with tangled overhanging power lines.

Each day, an estimated 2,000 people move to Dhaka, 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 neighborhoods, 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 neighborhoods, and electrical wires running haphazardly across roofs and walking paths. 

Poor infrastructure characterizes many slums in Bangladesh, as evidenced by crumbling paths between houses in the Beguntila informal settlement in Dhaka. The poorly lit walkway is especially perilous after dark, when a missed step could result in a spill. 

A narrow, dimly lit pathway between homes in Beguntila has cracked, lifting concrete next to dusty ground. A small cat in the foreground looks towards a woman at the mouth of the alley.

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.

Rain drops from power lines draped across a flooding alley between houses. A young boy walks down the path without an umbrella.

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.

Standing water and sewage fill a gulley between homes, clogged with trash and debris. Water lines for the surrounding houses snake alongside the stream.
A house made of sheets of corroded, rusting steel and a sagging roof, haphazardly overlaid with plastic sheet and bamboo poles fastened with twine.
In a lightless room, a young woman in a green sari sits at a loom weaving cloth out of fine thread..
Seen from the back, a young woman works at her laptop at a tiny desk tucked into a small, dark room.
Sahana, a middle-aged woman in a sari, cooks a meal on a small ceramic stove in an indoor cooking facility. A neighbor sits with her, and smoke rises from the pan to cover her face.

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.

Despite their fragile nature, homes in informal settlements may also serve as places of work for residents. Finding employment can be a challenge, particularly when inadequate housing doesn’t support people working from home. In Beguntila, Mim works in her darkened home making clothing on a loom.

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.

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.

Seen from behind, a crowd of people walks down a passageway in Beguntila, carrying items, pulling carts and doing other daily tasks.
Seen from the front, Sahana (in a green sari) leads a group of her neighbors down a narrow pathway.
Sahana and a neighbor stand on the site of the fire, which is strewn with rubble and construction scaffolding. She gestures towards the empty space where a house had been as she talks.
Sahana and Sumi converse with a neighbor in a pathway between their homes. the neighbor speaks as Sahana and Sumi listen intently.

Beguntila, a four-acre informal settlement created in 1999, 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. 

Despite facing many challenges, residents of informal settlements are working together to create positive change and transform their neighborhoods. 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 organizations.

During a recent fire in Duaripara, Sahana and her neighbors responded quickly when they saw the smoke, rushing to evacuate nearby residents. Five housing units were razed because of the damage they sustained. Recognizing 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 recognized in their neighborhood 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.

A paper map pinned to a brick wall, showing an outline view of Duaripara with areas of fire, flood and other risks marked with icons. In the corners are logos for Caritas and Habitat for Humanity Bangladesh.

To solve the challenges facing informal settlements, it’s critical to understand them first. Community input is a crucial first step. A map shows fire risk areas and evacuation routes in Duaripara – a potentially life-saving source of information when fires break out. Habitat Bangladesh and Caritas led safety training for residents of Duaripara to help families know what to do in an emergency. In these informal settlements, having a plan in place can help save lives and homes when disaster strikes.

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.