Climate Change Realities: Voices from the Mathare Community and Pathways to Resilience

Joseph Kirai
Aug 3, 2023

Climate change stands out as one of the most significant contributors to the global health challenges we face today. The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes that climate change has both direct and indirect impacts on various factors that influence health. These factors encompass air quality, food security, education, access to clean water, and secure shelter.

An alarming projection from 2015 to 2030 suggests that climate change could lead to approximately 250,000 extra deaths each year on a global scale. These deaths would primarily result from conditions like malaria, diarrhea, malnutrition, and heat-related stress. It's crucial to recognize that the impact of climate change is not evenly distributed, hitting hardest in informal settlements located in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs). This impact is particularly evident in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

The residents of these informal settlements face a disproportionately higher risk due to a combination of factors. These factors include inadequate housing, pre-existing health conditions, and a lack of fundamental infrastructure, including access to healthcare services. What exacerbates this issue is that the plight of these communities often gets sidelined in both research endeavors and policy formulation. Consequently, we are left with an alarming dearth of both quantitative and qualitative data regarding these highly vulnerable populations.

To put the scale of this challenge into perspective, it's estimated that a staggering 1 billion individuals worldwide reside in areas classified as slums or informal settlements. This statistic underscores the urgent need for comprehensive and inclusive measures to address the intricate nexus of climate change and public health, particularly for those residing in the most precarious conditions.

Mathare, situated in Nairobi, Kenya, stands as one among several slums in the area. Notably, it holds the distinction of being the oldest slum in the region and is the second-largest, following Kibera. Spanning an area of 157 hectares, Mathare extends from Pangani to the Gitathuru River. Its inception mirrors that of other Nairobi slums, primarily evolving due to a significant influx of people from rural to urban settings.

The population density within Mathare paints a vivid picture, with over 1,000 residents occupying a single hectare, which is roughly equivalent to 2.5 acres or 0.0039 square miles. To provide context, let's consider Manhattan, renowned for its population density. Manhattan accommodates around 70,000 residents per square mile or approximately 270 individuals per hectare. However, it's vital to acknowledge a notable distinction – Manhattan's residents predominantly inhabit multi-story buildings, ranging from four to 30 stories. In contrast, Mathare is predominantly characterized by single-story structures.

The organic growth of Mathare, lacking comprehensive planning, has given rise to formidable challenges for its inhabitants. The ad-hoc arrangement of structures and the absence of a holistic planning approach have led to significant shortcomings within the community. The consequence of this irregular development includes inadequate access to essential services such as electricity, water, and even proper roadways. The lack of proper connectivity further exacerbates difficulties, impeding the entry of trucks, waste removal efforts, fire and police services, and access to other vital amenities.

It's important to emphasize that although the dense clustering of structures might partly account for limitations in infrastructure deployment, it doesn't fully rationalize the absence of any infrastructure whatsoever. This situation underscores the urgency for a comprehensive and thoughtful approach to address the pressing challenges faced by Mathare and similar communities.

Purpose of the FGD

The objective of this focused group discussion centered on collecting insights about climate change within Mathare, pinpointing areas of heightened vulnerability, and devising precise strategies to tackle these vulnerabilities while fostering resilience in the face of climate change. The study further aimed to delve into the understanding, opinions, and actions of local residents inhabiting the informal settlement of Mathare in Nairobi. Specifically, it aimed to capture their knowledge, attitudes, and practices concerning climate change and the associated risks it brings.

This research endeavor was a collaborative effort involving SDI Kenya, a global network representing slum residents committed to driving a grassroots-driven transformation for inclusive and resilient cities, and Ushahidi. The discussion commenced on the morning of April 27th, 2023. The underlying goal was to pool collective knowledge and insights to inform strategic measures that would mitigate the adverse effects of climate change and enhance the community's ability to adapt.

By engaging with local perspectives and leveraging collaborative partnerships, this initiative sought to foster a comprehensive understanding of the unique challenges posed by climate change in Mathare. It aimed to harness this understanding to craft targeted interventions that empower the community and contribute to its overall resilience in the face of an evolving climate landscape.

Research Method

To gain a profound comprehension of the subject within a limited timeframe, the research employed the focus group discussion method. This method involves a small-group interaction facilitated by a trained leader. Its purpose is to delve into perspectives and insights regarding a specific topic, with the intention of informing future actions based on the gathered knowledge.

The assembled focus group comprised a total of 15 active community members. Among them, five participants hailed from each of the three distinct wards in Mathare: Mlango Kubwa, Mabatini, and Hospital ward. Out of the 15 participants, nine were female, while six were male.

The choice of utilizing focus group discussions as the primary research approach stemmed from its unique advantages. Unlike other methods, focus groups foster an environment where participants not only express their individual viewpoints but also engage in dynamic exchanges with fellow members. This interaction extends to responding to queries posed by the facilitator. This format provides a rich tapestry of perspectives, offering depth, subtlety, and diversity to the discourse – attributes that conventional surveys often struggle to capture.

Furthermore, focus groups, while structured and guided, encourage participants to freely express themselves. This balance between structure and spontaneity ensures that a substantial amount of information can be gleaned in a relatively condensed timeframe. As a result, this approach proves instrumental in efficiently uncovering nuanced insights and holistic understandings of the subject matter.


1. Community Understanding of Climate Change

The focus group discussion (FGD) was designed to delve into the community's grasp of climate change and its impact since their settlement in Mathare. This preliminary exploration aimed to ensure that participants possessed a comprehensive comprehension of the subject matter before delving deeper. All participants demonstrated a level of familiarity with the topic, with a significant majority describing it as a sequence of adverse consequences affecting the environment.

Among the participants, a female individual aged 35 to 40, representing the Mabatini ward, articulated her perspective. She shared,

 "A few years ago, we used to experience rainfall from November to December, but presently we don't. Climate change signifies the detrimental impact on the environment, leading to the alteration of distinct seasons."

2. Climate Change Trends

The focus group discussion also aimed to gain insights into the specific alterations evident as a direct outcome or consequence of climate change. Notably, a prominent observation stemming from over 70% of the participants was the diminishing predictability of weather patterns that the community once relied upon. This change has disrupted established norms.

A male participant, aged 45 to 50, representing the Hospital ward, shared his observations. He stated,

"I've witnessed significant changes in relation to rainfall patterns. Previously, there was a clear distinction between the rainy season, often around November or December, and the subsequent sunny season, typically in January or February. However, this distinction has blurred, with rainfall now occurring in January. In the past, we were accustomed to people relocating from houses near the river during the rainy season to evade flooding. These structures were particularly vulnerable. Yet today, predicting such events has become exceedingly challenging."

Further adding to these observations, a female participant aged 55 to 60, hailing from the Mlango Kubwa ward, contributed her insights. She articulated,

"We've borne witness to extensive climate shifts. In earlier times, we could confidently anticipate the ideal periods for planting crops. Yet, these indicators have vanished. Today, predicting weather has become a mere guessing game, as the reliability of anticipating rainfall has dwindled. The once-predictable cycle of drought and rain has become erratic and unpredictable."

3. Natural Disasters in the Community

The focus group discussions progressed to uncover instances of natural disasters experienced within Mathare and their correlation with climate change. Participants shared their insights, revealing a connection between these disasters and shifting climatic conditions. Notably, some of the noted occurrences included recent floods that triggered the outbreak of diseases such as cholera. The surging population in the area has compounded the challenges, rendering aid inaccessible during emergencies and exacerbating issues related to waste disposal. Concurrently, fires and landslides have become distressingly common during the rainy season.

A female participant aged 30 to 35, representing the Mlango Kubwa ward, offered her perspective. She shared,

"Having been born and raised here, I've observed the passage of time and the swelling population. Climate change has undoubtedly left its mark on us. In times past, the rivers flowed with clean water. However, due to the population surge and inadequate drainage systems, these water bodies have transformed into receptacles for waste. Additionally, the once-present trees have vanished from these areas. The present moment compels us to initiate reforestation efforts."

4. Secondary effects of Climate Change

More than half of the participants further highlighted indirect effects stemming from climate change, particularly the escalation of crime and gender-based violence. These consequences were underscored as significant concerns, with participants offering valuable insights into their observations.

A male participant aged 20 to 25, representing the Mabatini ward, offered his perspective. He articulated,

"The ripple effect of climate change extends beyond just the environmental disasters. For instance, the connection between insecurity and climate change might not be immediately evident. However, when we delve deeper, it becomes clear. As food prices surge and unemployment rates rise due to factors like erratic rains and soaring food costs, individuals may resort to theft as a means of survival. This economic desperation becomes a contributing factor to insecurity."

In a parallel vein, a female participant aged 30 to 35, hailing from the Hospital ward, shared her insights. She noted,

"Climate change ushers in a slew of challenges, including health issues like cholera and respiratory ailments during prolonged droughts. The effects go beyond the physical realm. We also witness an increase in gender-based violence. Financial difficulties stemming from the changing climate create tense household dynamics, contributing to an environment where gender-based violence can fester."

5. Health and Safety

The research delved into comprehending how climate change has impacted the health and safety of Mathare's residents. Participants offered insights into the emergence of various diseases and health challenges as a direct result of shifting climate patterns. Some of the anecdotes shared by the participants shed light on these connections:

A female participant aged 30 to 35, representing the Mlango Kubwa ward, voiced her observations. She highlighted,

"One critical aspect pertains to mental health issues. A significant portion of our community grapples with unemployment, leading to an inability to afford essential food supplies. This dire situation gives rise to mental health concerns. Additionally, the prevalence of tuberculosis (TB) in Mathare can be attributed to the high population density and the practice of using burnt tires as fuel for brewing purposes. Furthermore, subpar sewer systems and inadequate drainage contribute to the common occurrences of diseases like diarrhoea and cholera."

Another male participant aged 25 to 30, hailing from the Mabatini ward, shared his insights. He revealed,

"Certain areas near the riverside in Mathare witness alcohol brewing, while in the 3C region, tires from vehicles are burned, emitting smoke that adversely affects the health of residents in that vicinity. Many individuals experience respiratory issues due to the inhalation of this smoke, leading to a surge in chest-related problems."

6. Gender

As climate change exerts its influence, it generates conflicts worldwide, and within this context, women and girls find themselves facing heightened vulnerabilities to various forms of gender-based violence. This encompasses conflict-related sexual violence, human trafficking, child marriage, and other manifestations of violence. The focus group discussion (FGD) aimed to uncover gender-related issues exacerbated by climate change. An overwhelming 80% of the participants concurred that women and children bear the brunt of the impact whenever natural disasters strike their community. Particularly distressing is the observation that during droughts, girls may resort to exchanging food for sex due to soaring food prices.

A female participant aged 30 to 35, representing the Hospital ward, shared her insights. She remarked,

"Climate change ushers in health challenges like cholera and respiratory issues during droughts. It's important to acknowledge that gender-based violence surfaces when financial struggles pervade households."

Similarly, a female participant aged 25 to 30, hailing from the Mlango Kubwa ward, offered her perspective. She expressed,

"During fire outbreaks, the absence of homes forces us to sleep outdoors, subjected to biting cold. Undoubtedly, women and children bear the brunt of such circumstances, with the impact being moderately significant."

7. Education

The research delved into the ramifications of climate change on education, particularly concerning school-going children. A significant 80% of the responses honed in on the adverse effects of floods, fires, and droughts, outlining their profound influence on the educational landscape. These climate-induced events have led to disruptions in education, forcing children to remain at home during fire outbreaks and floods. The scarcity of water during droughts has also compromised hygiene conditions in schools, which, in turn, has impacted the health of school-going children, making them susceptible to diseases.

A female participant aged 30 to 35, representing the Hospital ward, shared her perspective. She noted,

"Floods result in rivers overflowing, blocking passage to the other side. Dilapidated iron sheets leak into classrooms, and heavy rain renders roads impassable, making the journey to school challenging."

Similarly, a female participant aged 40 to 45, also from the Hospital ward, contributed her insights. She highlighted,

"Drought has cast a shadow over school-going children. The soaring cost of food has left many students without proper nourishment, leading to diminished concentration in the classroom."

8. Food Safety and Security

The discussion notably underscored the profound impact of climate change on the community's ability to secure sustenance. Floods were noted to disrupt kitchen gardens, while droughts led to exorbitant food prices. Here are some of the personal experiences shared during the discussion:

A male participant aged 50 to 55, representing the Mabatini ward, voiced his insights. He explained,

"Our situation is adversely affected in multiple ways. When floods occur, it becomes arduous for vegetable vendors to access the markets early and procure produce. Consequently, they acquire vegetables at higher prices, which ultimately forces them to raise the prices for consumers like us."

Echoing these sentiments, another male participant aged 25 to 30, hailing from the Mlango Kubwa ward, added his perspective. He remarked,

"Floods pose a formidable challenge as they render roads impassable, hindering the transportation of food. For those of us engaged in urban farming, our hard-earned produce is swept away."

Meanwhile, a male participant aged 30 to 35, also from the Mlango Kubwa ward, shared his observations. He noted,

"During droughts, the scarcity of food, especially vegetables, compels us to source from external locations. We are compelled to purchase alternative foods such as cereals."

9. Waste Management

The discussion also delved into the dynamics of waste management within the community. An organized system involving youth groups emerged as the primary mechanism for waste collection, undertaken on a weekly basis to generate income. The collected waste is then transported to a designated holding zone within the vicinity.

However, a notable revelation from the discussion was that 30% of the participants opt to dispose of their garbage in the river, choosing this route over paying for proper waste disposal services.

Participants’ Recommendations

​The participants of the focus group discussion provided valuable and insightful recommendations to address the various challenges facing the community:

I. Fire Safety and Training: Participants proposed the establishment of a fire station within the community to mitigate the impacts of fires. They emphasized the importance of providing basic firefighting training, particularly to women who are often at home during such incidents. This proactive approach could empower community members to respond effectively to fire emergencies.

II. Mental Health Support: Recognizing the psychological toll of fires and floods, participants suggested offering counseling services to victims. Addressing mental health issues arising from these disasters is crucial to supporting the well-being of affected individuals.

III. Improved Sanitation: The county government was recommended to address water rationing and increase the frequency of water supply to Mathare residents. This measure aims to alleviate issues related to poor sanitation and reduce the incidence of diseases.

IV. Waste Management Solutions: Participants advocated for the establishment of a waste recycling plant or sorting center. This comprehensive solution not only addresses waste management concerns but also has the potential to create job opportunities for the youth.

V. Flood Mitigation: To combat flooding, participants suggested expanding water trenches and sewer lines. They also highlighted the importance of preventing illegal construction along river shores and urged local chiefs to resist bribery that allows such practices. Safety considerations for those living in flood-prone areas were also emphasized.

VI. Inclusive Training: The participants recommended extending training initiatives to include not only the youth but also women. Equipping women with disaster response skills acknowledges their central role in managing household and community affairs.

VII. Enhanced Healthcare: Participants called for the construction of more public hospitals in the community, adequately stocked with medicine. They also stressed the need for hospitals to offer 24-hour services and maintain an ambulance on standby to ensure timely medical assistance.

VIII. Community Engagement on Climate Change: The participants highlighted the collective responsibility of the community to engage in discussions about climate change, given its direct impact on their lives. They urged increased awareness and education efforts within the community to foster a deeper understanding of climate change issues.

IX. Responsible Construction: Lastly, the participants emphasized the importance of resisting the construction of houses along sewer and river lines. Encouraging responsible building practices can contribute to reducing the risk of flooding and related hazards.

These recommendations reflect the community's thoughtful insights and aspirations for a safer, more resilient, and sustainable future, underscoring the importance of collaborative efforts to address the multifaceted challenges posed by climate change and its consequences.