When it comes to developing world cities, Colombo is one example of a city that does not fit the usual text book models; no massive sprawling slums on the periphery of the city, no rampant in migration to the city and very few houses which could be classed as extremely poor.
So terms like “squatter settlement” and “shanty” don’t really apply to Colombo.
A better term for low income settlements might be Underserved Settlements or USS; and underserved is a term that applies to the houses of the urban poor wherever you go.
Text book examples are helpful up to a point, but what students get are generalisations. What students need is hard facts from real examples, whilst understanding that what they see is the result of a set of circumstances which is some ways is unique to a particular country.
This is the first of two short articles looking at the situation of the urban poor in Colombo Sri Lanka. It focusses on the nature of the underserved settlements. Most of the information is taken from a report by the NGO Sevanatha ( featured in an earlier article )
According to the first census of population in 1871 the city Colombo had a population of just under 99,000. By 1911 this had risen to just under 200,000 and it rose steadily throughout the 20th century at rates between 1.5% and 3 %. It now stands at 642000. ( The Colombo district is of course much larger with the 2012 census putting the population at just short of 2,310,000.)
There was never a period of explosive growth or in migration.
According to the literature underserved settlements ( USS) in Colombo date back to the time of colonial rule when the British brought in workers from surrounding rural areas, and from India, to work in offices, factories and the port itself.
They were housed in Northern Colombo mainly in rented accommodation. These areas in what we will later call district 1 became a focus for new migrants entering the city. Over time the supply of housing began to lag behind the demand and so as the low income population continued to grow people began to encroach on marginal areas such as canal banks, along railway lines, in marshy areas and abandoned paddy fields.
Land was also set aside for new settlements in the East and South of the city. For various reasons these settlements were never provided with basic urban services so jsut as with the USS in District 1 they remained lacking in basic service provision and that is the way things have remained.
Over the years there have been a number of improvement schemes. Even so, it is thought that around 50% of the population of Colombo city can still be classed as low income living in underserved settlements.
Sevanatha ; the survey
The NGO Sevanatha undertook a detailed survey in 2012 of all the USS in Colombo. In order to do that, the city was divided into a number of districts; see map below.
Map 1: Enumeration Districts
Researchers from Sevanatha then visited all the USS in the various districts located them on a map and used a scoring system based on a range of poverty/deprivation indicators to classify settlements into one of 4 groups; see table below:
|Score %||Assessment Category||Priority level|
|> 41||Extreme poor settlement needs immediate attention||1|
|41-60||underserved; needs improvement||2|
|61-80||upgraded; but can still be improved||3|
|< 81||fully upgraded||4|
- priority in this case means priority for improvement
and these are the types levels of service provision we are talking about
Priority 1: unauthorized settlement; houses are temporary, self built, lack of all basic services; water, electricity, individual toilets, proper access roads. In this case the railway line is the only access point. Typically there would be around 100 houses and 134 families living here.
photo 1; railway settlement
Priority 2: this is an underserved settlement. Most of the community have freehold status. Around 75% of the houses are permanent; built with brick/cement block with tiled roofs. Most will have electricity but water supply, individual toilets/bathrooms will be lacking. There will br no connection to the main sewage system.. no proper access or internal road. Typically ther might be 50 families living here.
Priority 3; This is an upgraded settlement and it is much bigger; maybe 1500 houses and 3000 families and a population of around 6000. The land is owned by a government agency (National Housing Development Agency). The residents all have permits to live here. nearly all houses are of permanent construction; 80% will have electricity, and water meters and some of the inner roads will be paved. Many will have their own bathrooms.
Priority 4: these are fully upgraded and are probably similar to lower middle class housing elsewhere in the city in terms of electricity supply, water connection, connection to the mains drainage, good standard access and inner access roads. These are often the oldest and most established USS in the city. This one has been in existence for over 30 years.
Low income housing in Colombo
There are currently 1735 USS in Colombo, the majority of which are small; the following are the main points to note
- 22% – under 10 houses
- 32% – 10 – 20 houses
- 30% – 21 – 60 houses
- so 84% of USS have 60 houses or less;
- only 5% of USS have more than 100 houses
When you look at the distribution of the settlements on map 2 below you can see that they are scattered throughout the city; however,
- there is a clustering of settlements in the north of the city District 1, 2a and towards the Eastern boundary Districts 3 and 4
- Districts 1 and 2a hold 72 of the population and 74% of the USS
- there is a secondary cluster towards the South East District 4
- The western central area is relatively free of USS District 2b and District 5
- Settlement categories by district
Settlement Categories as a % of the total
|Area||Location||total .houses||Ex poor||underserved||upgraded||full upgrade||% total|
- So most settlements have been upgraded to some degree. Only 0.3% are the lowest level; priority 1.
- The only district with significant numbers of priority 2 settlements is district 1; the north of the city
- Fully upgraded USS are similar to lower middle income households. if those are excluded the number of USS reduces down to 1053
- Land ownership in the USS breaks down as follows
- owned by occupants: 40%
- owned by govt: 32%
- owned by CMDC 16%
- privately owned 7%
- unclear 5%
- 22% possess user permit
- 43% own the freehold
- overall it is estimated that 57% of occupants do not enjoy security of tenure
- Housing conditions
more than 84% are classified as permanent
- overall 41% of settlements have to make do with common toilets
- 8% have no toilet facilities
- 33% of USS have n0 metered water connection
- 33% either use common facilities or rely on outside sources
- 5% of communities are in need of safe drinking water and levels of service are rated as a serious problem in 8% of USS
- 28% of settlements of USS have serious problems in respect of safe disposal of sewage; only 50% are connected to the city’s sewage network
- Electricity supply
most USS (98%) have electricity connection so not really an issue, BUT lack of street lighting is an issue for 34% of USS communities
- Garbage collection
15% of USS report irregular or no collection
author’s note: not sure how reliable this figure is; It is quite common to see mounds of garbage in the USS and there have been problems with garbage collection city wide over the last few years.
- Road conditions in settlements
- 40 % have well maintained tarred roads/pavements with good width access
- 41% have poorly maintained tarred roads
- 19% do not have tarred roads
- adequate drainage is non existent on 83% of internal roads leading to local flash flooding and waterlogging of internal roads
8. Income levels
- in only 22% of USS do the majority of households earn more than 20000 lkr (lkr is the sri lankan rupee; 200 to £)
- in 50% of USS 2/3rds of households earn less than 20,000 lkr
- overall monthly income in 63% of USS communities is rated as inadequate
- in the majority of USS less than 10% are in receipt of samurdhi payments; (a kind of state welfare benefit forthe low income/unemployed)
- in 15% of USS more than 50% of households are single parent households
- community based organisations do not exist in 83% of USS
- 86% of USS don’t not have community centres
- community savings programmes are only available in 8% of settlements;
- there are only 23 setllements where more than 75% of households are engaged in community savings
- 31% of USS are classified as being in high risk/vunerabilty situations.. particularly flash flooding
- more than 60% of USS are in the municip[al rate paying category
what this means is that residents are not organised or empowered to negotiate with local or national government agencies to improve service provision and living conditions.
What do USS residents identify as issues and problems
- need for connection to city sewage network
- need for private toilets
- lack of play spaces for children
- 20% feel social environment could be better
- 49% feel level of services is inadequate
- common view is that there is no consultation with residents where major redevelopment schemes are concerned
- low status and lack of legal identity of the USS makes it hard to enrol children in schools, getting service connections e.g. power and obtaining state benefits
- where rehousing is concerned, 28% favour on site low rise development, and most wanted any future housing developmentt to take place within their USS
The view of Sevenatha is that these communities need to become organised and therefore empowered, and to that end this NGO works with local communities to equip them to improve their local environments; see Sevanatha the work of an NGO
If you want to understand the nature of low income settlements in the developing world you need to understand that the conditions in which they grew up in each major city is to some degree unique. That makes generalisations about low income settlements of limited value.
Most of the urban poor in Colombo have solved the basic need: shelter. Not only that, in many cases they have gone much further in terms of improving their individual homes although this has taken them a fair amount of time to acquire the funds to do it. This is a pattern you see across the developing world.
What has been lacking in Colombo is any real drive by the authorities to support the efforts of the USS residents by adding in mains water supply, connections to the sewage network, and improving access and internal roads.
Once again the residents have realised that they have to do this themselves which is why the efforts of Sevanatha and the women’s cooperative bank (see earlier article) have gained traction
The government response has been different.
I was around in the 1960’s in the UK when comprehensive redevelopment and slum clearance brought in the hi rise urban council estates.. and we maybe can reflect on how (un)successful that was..think of Hulme in Manchester, (thankfully now bulldozed away) for example.
Sadly the authorities in Colombo seem bent on making the same errors..so the next article is all about the current rehousing scheme or enforced resettlement depending on your point of view.. what, where, how and the likely impacts.