Agency and Climate Resilience in Korail, Dhaka, Bangladesh
By Hunter Maples
Dhaka, the largest city in Bangladesh, is home to over 20 million people and highly susceptible to destructive flooding events. Much like other rapidly growing urban areas across the Global South, Dhaka is a dense and heterogeneous city, comprising a complex network of formal and informal settlements. While much of Bangladesh is at risk from increased flooding occurrences, those who live in varying conditions of informality stand to lose the most. Given that informal settlements are often found in flood-prone areas, climate change is likely to pose a disproportionate threat to these neighborhoods.
At more than 90 acres in size, Korail is one of the largest informal communities in Dhaka. The population of roughly 100,000 is concentrated along the edge of a large lake with virtually no open land. Given its location, Korail is prone to seasonal flooding events much like the rest of the region (Jabeen 2010). However, residents have developed several coping strategies, including practices of altering the built environment to accommodate the variability of weather events such as floods. “In Korail, choosing a safe location in order to avoid danger, such as away from the water’s edge, is not an option for most of the inhabitants, as building new rooms is only possible through the encroachment of the water’s edge, which is susceptible to flooding” (Jabeen 2010). Households construct barriers to seal doorways in order to protect interior rooms, raise furniture, and create strategic outlets to facilitate the quick and efficient movement of floodwaters. These strategies exemplify the fluidity of the built environment to mitigate the effects of flooding without access to grey infrastructures such as pumps, or the privilege to relocate away from the lake’s edge.
The strategies of adaptation developed by the residents of Korail illustrate the need to critically examine the conceptualization of planning and the development discourse. By challenging the way we think of cities, we can better understand the heterogeneous nature of them. Cities are fluid and abstract; made up of people, interactions, and movement anchored in place and time (Simone 2004). Heterogenous spaces often do not fit into one category or another (Ong 2011). Miraftab suggests that planners should de-colonize their imaginations. This entails developing an upside-down vision of the city in which subaltern communities are understood on their own terms and through their own value system, thus challenging the western rationalities that dominate development and governance approaches (Miraftab 2009). This allows for a more inclusive, community-based approach to planning that is more equitable than the traditional model.
City officials in Dhaka are now working alongside universities to map informal settlements within the city in order to better assess the risks and impacts of flooding. To counter this tendency towards top-down rational planning regimes, researchers are producing work that highlights how Dhaka’s informal communities currently handle flooding events. One study discusses the fluidity of the built environment in informal communities and its relation to resilience. This directly rebuts the neoliberal idea that development is the desired, progressive response to complex planning issues based on northern standards and ideals (Roy 2006). Because the contemporary mode of planning favors development and is grounded in a top-down perspective and neoliberal ideals introduced through colonialism, focusing on rigid boundary-making and fixed spatialities, the planning interventions that the state may impose upon informal settlements due to the heightened risks of catastrophic flooding events could threaten the very existence of the communities (Watson 2009).
The conditions in Korail are far from ideal, but the people that call the waterfront home have adapted to cope with climate variability to a certain degree. However, these strategies are overlooked by a neoliberal planning regime that follows the mainstream development discourse, despite the scholarship praising the community for its resiliency and adaptive response to changing conditions. We can understand this paradox better by drawing on insights from critical development theory, which applies existing planning and development practices to structures of neoliberal hegemony and domination (Rankin). From the perspective of critical development theory, the language and dualisms produced after World War II have inculcated a singular view that development is desirable (Escobar 1996). By creating a divide between constructed notions of formal and informal, and developed and developing, marginalized communities living in conditions of informality are inherently subjugated.
While cities around the world are changing quickly, the institutional and procedural nature of planning is evolving much more slowly. “Traditional urban planning will continue to be ineffective or be used in opportunistic ways (such as for the eviction of the poor) by those with political and economic power” (Watson 2009). In Dhaka, the fear is that the threat of climate change will provide justification for authorities to demolish, evict, and ultimately erase the informal communities within the city. The informal communities of Dhaka thus have less power than the institutional and private actors that are making planning decisions that directly affect them. Ultimately, given the traditional planning contexts of postcolonial countries, the dualisms and stigma of development justify the exclusion and theft of agency of those that live outside the mainstream.
There are key lessons planners can learn from Korail. The threat of climate change creates an uncertain future for which planners must be prepared. While the notion of climate refugees is largely a faraway concept, in Korail it is already a reality. Residents on the waterfront are able to adapt their existing structures to facilitate dangerous environmental conditions. This flexibility allows them to adapt and remain resilient without having to evacuate or rebuild. Planners need to consider the contemporary development discourse critically and reconceptualize the implications of informality. In Korail, informality allows greater freedom to adapt.