Tanks & Berms: Estuary as Resilience Engine
This project adapts a home-grown system of tanks and berms developed by coastal slum residents to address water contamination and flooding.
EXPLAIN YOUR IDEA
The dynamics of informal settlements the world over generate social and ecological networks that can be progressively transformed both to make these settlements more resilient and to create more sustainable urban change for the cities of which they are a part. Communities in these settlements are not only formed by histories of sharing cultural practices, linguistic, regional and ethnic origins but also by sharing environmental risks and claims-making vehicles. We wish to enhance resilience by improving socially generated infrastructure and empowering communities to share in mitigating the effects of climate change.
Our project focuses on one informal urban ecosystem, a home grown system of tanks and berms cultivated by the Koli fishing community occupying the northwestern edge of Dharavi - an informal industrial settlement in Mumbai who use the tanks for fishing and the berms for community gardening. We propose to redesign and retrofit this system, multiplying its functions and effects.
Our project empowers the Koli elders who are the stewards of these tanks and berms to upgrade this infrastructure by retrofitting the tanks to address water contamination issues; slow storm surges; capture and control release of tidal and sea level rise flooding; capture waste for recycling and energy generation through wave action within the tanks. Thus converted, the system of tanks and berms could serve the city as a whole to become resilient to the effects of climate change.
The Koli community gains stewardship by transforming its infrastructure into a system for cleansing and flood control. Residents working with adjacent recycling clusters gain access to systemically filtered recycling waste. Adjacent land owners gain income through leasing fees and direct power supply from energy production. The municipal corporation, sediment purchasers and treatment firms benefit through purchasing agreements. Mumbai residents gain a coastal buffer and cleaner groundwater.
HOW DOES YOUR IDEA TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THE CONTEXT OF URBAN SLUMS AND CLIMATE CHANGE?
Our long-term, ethnographic research identifies small-scale and home-grown infrastructures that are a signature of informal settlements all over the world. Our approach advocates designing within the existing ecosystems created by these infrastructures thereby designing projects that are consonant with the social and political strengths of the community. Because the design leverages and scales up these home-grown systems of affordances to generate livelihoods as well as to hedge against various environmental risks, our project could take root and succeed in becoming a practical demonstration of alternative resilience strategies to the city. It demonstrates practically how climate change mitigation techniques and informal infrastructure-making could intertwine to produce advantages for all urban residents.
In terms of technology, our retrofit of the system of tanks and berms extends their functions to add waste capture, flood control, energy generation, water treatment and sediment conversion simultaneously. Thus it creates new beneficiaries and stakeholders in the system. If successful, it has potential benefits for the city of Mumbai as a whole, providing an alternate vision of development for other informal settlements along the coast as well as a model and method for coastal cities elsewhere in the world, enhancing resilience through social participation in infrastructure-making.
Yes, for two or more years
I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for at least two years
TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF
We are an independent, interdisciplinary not-for-profit research and design group with expertise in anthropology, landscape architecture, urban planning and data visualization. Our method combines ethnography and visualization to identify local solutions to combat vulnerability and inequality.
IS THIS A NEW OR RECENT IDEA FOR YOU OR YOUR ORGANIZATION? HOW DOES IT DIFFER FROM WHAT YOU ARE ALREADY DOING?
This idea was first developed during fieldwork in Dharavi in 2014 as part of a larger investigation into the speculative strategies used by slum residents to address precarity in Mumbai. The objective of our research has always been to sketch alternative scenarios towards more just and equitable cities. But our focus on climate change resilience as such is new. The Koli community introduced us to their tank and berm system and we began to link its ecological value to the city as a whole. We have been developing this idea with feedback from the community but have not begun testing it.
HOW IS YOUR IDEA DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SIMILAR INITIATIVES? WHAT ARE YOU DOING DIFFERENTLY? WHAT UNIQUE ADVANTAGES DO YOU HAVE?
Urban slums are generally viewed as obstructions to natural ecosystems and are thus viewed as an integral part of the problem that cities face in adapting to climate change. Our initiative turns this logic on its head by understanding the systems of affordances that slum residents have painstakingly designed and improved upon over time as part of the solution to climate change resilience. Rather than turning to mega-scale engineering projects such as sea walls, we suggest upgrades to a system of networked micro-solutions among which the “Tanks and Berms” project is an initial pilot study. We envisage not only protecting ecological assets locally but creating a new imaginary of slums and their capacities for the city as a whole. With this project, we also garner support from additional stakeholders at the local level, thus enabling connections between different groups within large, heterogeneous settlements such as Dharavi.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR IDEA?
In Mumbai, various policies have reduced slums to a housing problem. Their value to the city is calculated in terms of the potential for real estate surpluses through slum redevelopment projects. Our project is based on transferring this potential value from real estate to the ecological and economic value generated by slums in stewarding the urban ecosystems that they occupy. But this transferral requires a new legal and policy framework to enable community land and infrastructure trusts as vehicles for implementing multiple projects similar to the one we propose. Our project calls attention to this fundamental yet unanswered question while demonstrating a path forwards.
WHY DO YOU THINK THE PROBLEM YOUR IDEA SOLVES FOR HASN'T BEEN SOLVED YET?
The imaginary of the slum as a housing problem has dominated the field of urban development for several decades. Our project aims at introducing a new imaginary, based on designing within the transformed ecosystem and scaling up the bottom-up tactics that have been systematically introduced and shepherded by vulnerable communities. By moving away from strategies that call for the erasure and replacement of slum settlements we advocate for an approach that places economic and ecological value generated by these communities at the center of our design. We believe that the problem that our project designs around has not yet been imagined as a problem let alone being solved.
HOW HAS YOUR IDEA CHANGED BASED ON FEEDBACK FROM YOUR COMMUNITY?
Following initial research into the tank and berm system, key tank stewards from the Koli community have provided insight into the history of environmental contamination, their livelihood practices, and community relations in Mumbai. Their feedback following each design iteration has focused the project’s core components to interventions that address their own concerns with environmental contamination and interventions that will maintain their security of land tenure. In the coming months, we will work together to develop collective governance structures, including a community infrastructure trust, to provide decision-making and coordination of incremental upgrades to their existing infrastructure. Beneficiary feedback has also directed us to develop the project in ways that resonate with other community groups across the city who seek similar interventions through collective governance structures.
WHAT WOULD YOU ULTIMATELY LIKE TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS IDEA? WHAT IS YOUR NEXT STEP TO GET THERE?
Our broader goal is to test out a new platform where academic research, community-based design research and prototyping come together meaningfully and enhance the impact of the solutions developed by communities. To achieve this idea, we need a process to present this idea simultaneously to policy stakeholders who rarely, if ever, meet together on these challenges. We also need to work with financial engineers on the feasibility of offering infrastructure trusts with local communities as primary stakeholders as investment vehicles. Our dream is to define a new process for connecting slums economically and ecologically to the cities of which they are already a vital part.
How does your idea connect to the broader system of the city where you plan to implement?