A Productive Public Space project from KDI in Kibera.

A Productive Public Space project from KDI in Kibera. (courtesy: KDI)

The Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), a Nairobi-based collective of architects, urban planners and engineers, wants to turn one town’s dumping sites and derelict houses into a model ‘Flood Hub’ that showcases the group’s best practices for dealing with urban flooding and help bring a community together to benefit from its local development initiatives.

Kibera is a 225-hectare informal settlement located 3.1 miles away from Kenya’s capital. Most houses in Kibera are mud-walled structures that are not durable in the face of heavy rains. This year, following the rainy season in the months of April and May, KDI interviewed nearly 1000 local households and said more than 50% of people they spoke with had suffered damages to their property because of the rains.

“Often times, water gets into the building and ruins your stuff. If you’re on an income of 6,000 shillings a month, it’s a major, major blow to the face” – Joe Mulligan, Associate Director at KDI

Mulligan said a ‘model household’ at the group’s hub would contain shelving units made from locally available wood, showing the hub’s visitors how to better protect their belongings from floodwaters. Other low-cost structures would include concrete bed stands, an interior drainage system made from plastic pipes, water-proof doorway up-stands and raised doorsteps made from mud, water and dry grass.

A page from a pamphlet given to Kibera’s residents ahead of the ‘Flood Hub’ construction.

A page from a pamphlet given to Kibera’s residents ahead of the ‘Flood Hub’ construction. (Courtesy: KDI)

Outside the ‘model’ home, steel gutters would collect rainwater that could then be used for cleaning and washing, while gabion retaining walls made from stone and mesh wire would be built along the nearby Ngong River as well as sewage drains to help prevent flood waters from ever reaching people’s homes.

A page from a pamphlet given to Kibera's residents ahead of 'Flood Hub' construction.

A page from a pamphlet given to Kibera’s residents ahead of ‘Flood Hub’ construction. (credit: KDI)

Mulligan said along with changes to the physical structure of local homes, there’s also a need to build on existing “soft” measures to deal more effectively with the urban flooding brought on by climate change.

He offers these 10 points from the KDI team for communities in sub-Saharan Africa that could benefit from a ‘Flood Hub’ and want to achieve an ecologically and economically balanced approach to battling urban flooding.

  1. Use low-cost building materials
    Most of the materials used in the construction of a ‘model’ household are locally sourced, using stone, wood, mud, dry grass and bamboo all found in the community.

    “You can get wood for very cheap in Kibera and these days people even recycle a lot of their wood from old structures, and that makes it easy to get your hands on.” – Joe Mulligan, Associate Director KDI

    Although using cement and mesh wire can be more expensive, Mulligan said the availability of a social resilience center like the ‘Flood Hub’ would make it easier for communities to collectively invest in smarter infrastructure.

    “People are seeing the value of gabion constructing so they are coming together and putting their money into it, despite the absence of formal banking. That’s why it’s critical to improve the way this is being done with a space like the Flood Hub.”

  2. Be eco-friendly
    Mulligan said unnatural building materials like cement and steel can sometimes cause damage to the local environment. At the hub, Mulligan said Kibera’s residents will learn how to implement landscape-driven solutions like planting bamboo along the banks of the river for erosion control and using plants that would function just like the gabion walls. Mulligan said these natural solutions are easier to adjust to climate changes compared to other engineered solutions.
  3. Promotes inclusion
    The ‘Flood Hub’ is meant to be designed and operated by its end-users. Mulligan said by partnering with local communities exposed to flood risks, KDI will learn about current flood adaptations, improving upon local techniques with professional design and engineering knowledge.

    “The Flood Hub is a good space to find a middle ground and bridge the gap between government and the people. The Department of Public Works at the City County of Nairobi has actually been very interested in our work in Kibera so far and wants to learn from our approach to discuss how things can be done differently and how to improve resilience and protect the people.”

  4. Foster local preparedness

    “We want to get more information to people about the level of flood risks and the potential responses. It’s not just about the structural things but we should also look at the non-structural things.”

    Apart from learning how to build flood resilient houses, Mulligan said Kibera’s residents will be able to come to the hub to learn about early-warning systems, set up flood awareness campaigns and flood management committees, and access an open data portal containing flood risk maps and graphics.

  5. Set the standard for “smarter” building in informal settlements
    Often, the standards and regulations made by municipal bodies for building various structures cannot always be implemented in informal settlements because of a lack of resources. Mulligan said the continued practice of “smarter” building in Kibera will help set a new standard for communities in Kenya and all across Africa that face similar challenges.

    “In a place like Kibera, you find yourself in a position where the resources are not available to build to the standards given by the county. It’s not a reality and it doesn’t make sense. We are not trying to lower these standards but it’s about choosing a quality and way of building that is appropriate to the resources available and the physical context.”

  6. Be a place for public recreation
    KDI’s goal is to transform an environmental liability into a usable public space. Since 2006, they have completed seven “productive public space” projects in Kibera. Mulligan said he’d like the ‘Flood Hub’ to be a space where women in the community can come and do laundry while learning about resilience, through community art projects like a mural painting that depicts the most flood-prone areas in the community.
  7. Help nurture local businesses
    Mulligan said community groups who become well versed in building flood resilient structures get better business opportunities and could even be hired to do the same work in other communities in the country,

    “In Kibera, people hire fundis [skilled craftsmen] to do work on their house, furniture or whatever else it is that they need. If you raise the skills of fundis who are doing this type of work then they could get better business.”

  8. Help reduce the risks of contracting water-borne diseases
    Following this year’s floods, Mulligan said many of Kibera’s residents suffered from cholera. During flooding, rainwater mixes with the water from the river and sewage drains, and people who use this water because they do not have access to clean drinking water can become sick. Effective, low-cost infrastructure like gabion walls reduce the risk of the water becoming contaminated.
  9. Make it easy to track impact
    Mulligan said that KDI and Kibera’s residents will be able to identify improvements in current flood prevention practices with any Android mobile device. At the hub, people will be taught to use these devices for geo-tagging flood prevention structures and take photo surveys. The visual data collected will be made available to help better inform future adaptation measures.
  10. Make it replicable
    Mulligan said most informal settlements in sub-Saharan Africa face similar challenges when it comes to flooding. He said he believes the ‘Flood Hub’ can be built in lots of places just like Kibera,

    “Obviously the conditions are different in every place but I know that places like Old Fadama and other settlements in Accra have had similar issues in terms of flooding and it tends to be a pattern that informal settlements are formed along drainage paths. So even though the resources needed might differ from place to place, the approach has replicability.”