In search of the innovative urban poor in the Global South

PhD Candidate Razia Sultana reflects on her fieldwork and conference trips made possible by being awarded UOW’s Global Challenges Travel Scholarship.

It is really hard to conduct research with a small HDR fund when your fieldwork is overseas!  The Global Challenges Travel Scholarship opened up a window of opportunity for me to back up my PhD field travel costs and present my research findings within an international arena. I am really fortunate to have that kind of opportunity!

Put broadly, my higher degree research addresses one of the pressing global challenges of today-that is, climate change. My field site is in Bangladesh which is one the most vulnerable countries to global climate change and faces various natural catastrophes almost every year. In particular, the issue of climate change has been complex for Dhaka– the capital city- due to frequent rural-urban migration, rapid increase of informal settlement and lack of knowledge about different mechanisms of coping and adaptive capacity of socio-economically disadvantaged.

Green infrastructure in practice in Korail Slum Dhaka

Throughout my time researching I would like to explore urban green infrastructure (UGI) as a form of climate change adaptation in Bangladesh’s urban slums. The focus of my study is how a green infrastructure method could be applied to urban slum communities to make them more resilient to climate change. By green infrastructure, I refer to all types of vegetation that bring socio-economic dividends and help address climatic challenges, while building the relationship with nature. Examples include, community gardens for food security, organic flood barriers such as trees for property security, rooftop lawns for thermal comfort and so on.

At the beginning of 2017, I travelled to Korail, the biggest slum in Dhaka and met the enthusiastic and amazing slum households that migrated from rural areas due to massive events of flood or cyclone. While conducting semi-structured interviews with the vulnerable communities, I found that quite often, the practice of their local knowledge on green infrastructure is not valued by the stakeholders involved in disaster management. However, one of my important findings, is that slum households are poor but they are rich in local and traditional knowledge to change their surroundings.

Slum dwellers in Korail are practicing green infrastructure using the roof top of shacks

In July 2017, I travelled to Brisbane to attend the Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) Conference 2017. For me, attending such a mega international conference was really exciting and I was fortunate to have  some unique experiences on various global issues. In fact, IAG was my first conference ever in Australia that I had the scope to present my paper.

Razia at the Great Court St Lucia Campus where she graduated with her Masters degree.

On the second day of the conference (12 July 2017), I presented my paper on ‘Latent knowledge on Green Infrastructure as a Source of Community Resilience, a Case Study in Dhaka’s Slum Bangladesh’ in a morning session titled ‘Critical Geographies of Climate Change Adaptation and Development in Oceania’ run by Dr Sophie Webber, University of Sydney. In the conference I talked about slum dwellers’ hidden talents to adapt to changing climate through UGI.

Amidst the problem of land scarcity slum dwellers in Korail have planted mango trees in front of the shacks

I raised the point that, despite slum dwellers continuing to face the problem of land scarcity, ownership problem, eviction and other issues in their daily lives, they are innovative and use inventive techniques. Using hidden talents and resourcefulness, slum dwellers plant in plastic bottles, jute bags and other recycled items to make their surroundings greenery.

Overall, IAG conference covers many dimensions of climate change adaptation around the world. Since the concepts of climate change and urban green infrastructure differ from the Global North to the Global South, it was a great opportunity for me to learn how the geographers approach their study on these two themes. This has helped me to synthesise my own ideas by raising various critical questions and queries.

Plantation by the slum dwellers in a recycled plastic bucket in Korail Slum

One important point that I would like to flag is that getting chance to attend such a great gathering  has created a space for me to begin to network with other geographers working across a variety of fields. I am looking forward to attend such kind of conference again and getting to spend time with lots of like-minded and passionate geographers who are relentlessly contributing to this field!


This post first appeared on the UOW Global Challenges Blog.

Razia Sultana is a PhD Candidate with AUSCCER and the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities. Read more about her research in her last ‘Conversations with AUSCCER’ blog post.

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