Global Development Institute Blog

Laura Hirst is working on an ESRC CASE PhD studentship with Operation Florian at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, researching the production of vulnerability to fire risk in resource poor urban settlements in the Global South. She is about to commence her fieldwork in different urban settlements in Nairobi, Kenya.

The immediate aftermath of a tent fire in an informal refugee settlement in Zahle, Beqaa Valley, Lebanon

Medair staff conducting household visits as part of a fire risk training at an informal refugee settlement in Taanayel, Beqaa Valley, Lebanon.
Photo credit: Laura Hirst and Steve Jordan.

Workshop organised by the Manchester Migration Lab and Operation Florian, 27 April 2017

Fires cause over 300,000 deaths annually worldwide, causing permanent injuries to millions more, with the vast majority occurring in low and middle income countries. However, these figures are likely to be a vast underestimate; fire risk is classed as extensive – meaning it is everyday, localised, and high frequency – and is less likely to be documented and managed than intensive risks. Fires in informal urban settlements are even less likely to be officially recorded, due to a combination of issues related to poverty and spatial, social, economic and political marginalisation. Similarly, the impact of fire risk on lives and wellbeing beyond physical injuries can be extensive but difficult to quantify; long term health, livelihoods, housing and well-being at different levels may be severely jeopardised, compounding existing disadvantages often experienced by residents of informal settlements.

In a context of continued urbanisation (particularly in cities of the Global South), as well as of international migration and displacement, the proliferation of informal settlements and refugee camps increase conditions of fire risk. However, the issue has been consistently neglected both within policy and practice. Work to date has often been disjointed and piecemeal, as well as taking a largely techno-managerial perspective. Fire risk in informal settlements is conceived of as an issue to be managed through technical interventions, focusing on fire spread, materials, engineering and design, neglecting underlying social, political and economic factors.

The immediate aftermath of a tent fire in an informal refugee settlement in Zahle, Beqaa Valley, Lebanon

The immediate aftermath of a tent fire in an informal refugee settlement in Zahle, Beqaa Valley, Lebanon
Photo credit: Laura Hirst and Steve Jordan.

Against this background, a group of 25 academics and practitioners attended a workshop organised by the Manchester Migration Lab and Operation Florian. Building on a 2016 workshop convened by Dr John Twigg (Overseas Development Institute) which looked specifically at data on fire risk in informal settlements, this workshop aimed to assess existing evidence from the field and begin thinking about potential strategies and actions. Reflecting the multi-faceted nature of fire risk in informal settlements, participants came from the fields of humanitarian aid, urban development, migration, health, fire science and disaster risk reduction. This provided not only an opportunity to exchange experiences but also to speak across different disciplines, and identify scope for collaboration.

Critical to framing the day’s discussion was Greg Bankoff’s (University of Hull) contribution, which highlighted the need to firmly ground fire risk in such settlements within spatially specific histories, contexts and cultures in order to work towards achieving ‘fire justice’. The reminder by Dr John Twigg to continue applying existing frameworks of vulnerability to the issue also raised discussions around the ‘singular’ nature of fire in contrast to other hazards, and whether existing frameworks were actually enough to tackle this particular issue.

Updates on fire science and engineering research projects at the University of Edinburgh (led by Dr Luke Bisby, Dr David Rush and Dr Graham Spinardi) provided a good example of technical approaches acknowledging and working in tandem with more social approaches.

The immediate aftermath of a tent fire in an informal refugee settlement in Zahle, Beqaa Valley, Lebanon

Tents in an informal refugee settlement in the Akkar region, where tyres are used to keep tents secure but contribute to a high level of fire loading and source of fuel.
Photo credit: Laura Hirst and Steve Jordan

Discussion highlighted the need to look at the diverse and complex nature of informal settlements, which are often categorised into various typologies, but in reality can take different, changing forms, situated within complex and unique urban contexts. The subsequent impact of this on transferability of findings and comparative work was also discussed, for me highlighting a need to focus on transferable methodologies and holistic frameworks rather than cut and paste solutions.

Steve Jordan’s presentation on Operation Florian’s experience of conducting risk assessments in Lebanese, Thai and Kenyan refugee settlements gave an insight into the evolution of a methodology from a practitioner perspective, and provoked discussion around issues of social diversity and different experiences and practices around fire risk and vulnerability. Steve’s overview also showed how Operation Florian’s work has evolved through experience to take into account local social constructions of fire in conjunction with technical fire risk and fire response assessments. Andy Powell’s report on the findings from a Save the Children/Operation Florian fire risk assessment in Lebanese refugee settlements also exemplified the importance of the social context for fire risk, including a highly political context which affects how and where refugees settle; relationships between national and local civil defence brigades and humanitarian agencies; and a wider national and international lack of attention and understanding of fire risk.

The immediate aftermath of a tent fire in an informal refugee settlement in Zahle, Beqaa Valley, Lebanon

The immediate aftermath of a tent fire in an informal refugee settlement in Zahle, Beqaa Valley, Lebanon
Photo credit: Laura Hirst and Steve Jordan.

The workshop ended with a discussion around strategic and practical ways to focus more attention on the issue at different levels and arenas. As a PhD researcher about to embark on fieldwork on vulnerability to fire risk in informal settlements in Kenya, the workshop provided many new ideas for my own research, and confirmed that the work I intend to carry out is relevant in terms of providing a bottom up perspective on how vulnerability to fire risk is experienced and mediated. Whilst the different perspectives reflected an advance on a purely technical response to fire risk, gaps remain for me in looking at the issue from a household and community-based perspective. In addition to interventions and research carried out by academic researchers, international agencies and NGOs, what are residents of settlements doing themselves on an everyday basis to address fire risk, what local relationships and resources do they draw on, and how can this be incorporated into ongoing, wider interventions?

A good overview of available research is provided in: Twigg, J., Christie, N., Haworth, J., Osuteye, E., Skarlatidou, A., 2017. Improved Methods for Fire Risk Assessment in Low-Income and Informal Settlements. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14, 139.

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.
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