Double Disaster: Flood fallout and state eviction in Nairobi & Karachi

Published on 23 May 2024

Mathews Wakhungu

Research Principal, Kounkuey Design Initiative

Muhammad Arsam Saleem

Senior Research Associate, Karachi Urban Lab at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA)

Duaa Sameer

Research Associate, Karachi Urban Lab at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA)

Allan Ouko K’Oyoo

Research Associate, Kounkuey Design Initiative

Regina Opondo

Senior Community Principal, Kounkuey Design Initiative

Joe Mulligan

Executive Director and Founding Principal, Kounkuey Design Initiative

Arabella Fraser

Senior Lecturer in Global Development, Open University

Gulnaz Anjum

Associate Professor of Social Psychology, University of Oslo

Nausheen H Anwar

Research Fellow

In 2024, Nairobi, Kenya, was ravaged by floods, exposing the vulnerability of urban low-income neighbourhoods. This was compounded by a brutal response from authorities. In 2018 and then 2022, Karachi, Pakistan, experienced unprecedented and devastating flooding. This also elicited a top-down state response that continues to have cascading effects, amidst annual flood events

As post-colonial cities, where a majority of their combined population lives in informal settlements, violent state responses in both cities lead us to consider some of the parallels and action points.

State response in Nairobi

Relentless rainfall and widespread flooding in May 2024 in Kenya have resulted in the tragic loss of at least 267 lives and the displacement of over 380,000 people. Floods inundated major roads and neighbourhoods in Nairobi, affecting areas such as Githurai, Athi River, Runda (an ‘upscale’ neighbourhood), and informal settlements like Mukuru, Mathare, Kibera, Korogocho, and Kawangware. The government’s response was marked by a directive to evacuate residents living within 30-metres of riparian corridors within 48 hours, causing further loss of life and property, and exacerbating the crisis. 

A photo of a flooded river flowing through an urban area in Nairobi, Kenya, on a rainy day. There are many buildings on the far side of the river.
Flooding in Mukuru, an informal settlement. Photo credit: Pascal Kipkemboi, KDI.

The state violence inherent in these forced evacuations raises questions about the government’s motives and methodologies.  With residents not allowed to return to their homes, a directive aimed at evacuation becomes a de facto eviction under the mantra of redesigning affordable housing. It is also unclear how the 30 metre rule has been derived. 

A photo showing he aftermath of flooding in an urban area or Nairobi, Kenya. There is a small river running from the bottom left to the right of the photo. Destroyed buildings are everywhere, with lots of mud and metal.
Photo showing eviction and demolition along the Ngong River in Mukuru on 10th May 2024. Photo credit: Pascal Kipkemboi, KDI.

Post-disaster evictions in Karachi

After the 2018 floods, local authorities blamed widespread flooding on poor planning and illegal settlements. This perspective led to the quick implementation of politically expedient evictions and demolitions of settlements along stormwater drains. In parallel, urban authorities expedited budget allocations and project approvals for new infrastructures, indicating a desire to reimagine a new urban aesthetic without informal settlements

One settlement, Kausar Niazi Colony, faced large-scale evictions and demolitions to extend the natural drainage channel that flowed next to it. The initial assessment of housing structures was conducted using drones. This approach overlooked residents’ concerns and resulted in significant discrepancies regarding which structures needed demolition and the compensation owed. This led to the displacement of more than 4,000 households, affecting some of the city’s poorest residents. Many have still not received their promised compensation packages even after seven years of court cases and social activism.

A photo of a raised waterway running through an urban area of Karachi, Pakistan. There are concrete buildings on either side of the water way, which itself is surrounded by dry earth. There is an orange construction vehicle next to the water way.
Incomplete drainage channel expansion in Kausar Niazi, Karachi. Demolitions for this project started in 2018 and yet the project remains incomplete to this day. Photo credit: Muhammad Arsam Saleem.

Reflections from Nairobi and Karachi

In a glaring example of climate injustice, it’s evident that low-income residents near rivers in Nairobi’s and Karachi’s informal settlements bear the brunt of flood impacts but are also disproportionately targeted by mitigation efforts such as clearing drains and waterways. While the quality of housing structures within high-exposure areas needs to be addressed, blanket evictions without proper evacuation, rehousing, or compensation compound risks for the people most directly affected by climate crises. 

This ‘double disaster’ creates a permanent state of standby which halts people’s ability to recover from the initial disaster, lasting years or even decades. Demolitions in Nairobi and Karachi have decimated communal networks and further exacerbated access to education and work, child care, health, and social networks. The ability of people to repair is closely tied to the support of these physical and social infrastructures.  

In both cases, the veneer of ‘aesthetic violence’ veils the underlying agendas of gentrification. We observe a stark contrast in the treatment of informal settlements in Nairobi and Karachi compared to upscale developments, that remained unaffected by evictions despite their illegality or closeness to affected drainage channels. 

More significantly, state discourses surrounding affordable housing in Nairobi and new infrastructure plans in Karachi during evictions function as a political shield for ‘violent gentrification’. State authorities exploit disasters to justify forced evictions without providing assurances of timely and appropriate housing units for those displaced. 

In both cases, authorities took a distanced approach, devoid of community engagement or a contextual understanding of flood risk. The use of detached methodologies such as the imposition of an arbitrary 30-metre corridor in Nairobi or the use of drone surveys in Karachi conveniently ignore the social, cultural, and planning context of affected communities.

A call to action

In the aftermath of devastating floods in Nairobi and Karachi, we contend that the governments’ response to disasters is a locus for social, infrastructural, and climate injustice. Instead, we need approaches that consider the specific mitigation and adaptation needs of affected communities. Communal networks and existing infrastructures such as public and green spaces that support climate resilience and post-disaster recovery must be protected. Combining community dialogues, local knowledge and priorities, and spatial data and modelling can support conversations on both hazards, planning and housing which respect due process, rights and empowerment.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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