Learning to See Systems


The key to building resilience is to understand the systems that people depend on, and to figure out what they are vulnerable to. But seeing systems takes practice. This piece looks at a simple example of seeing core systems, and using those insights to reduce risk from hazards.

This is a photo of a typical African informal settlement. These homes are here illegally, and as a result there are no city services – electricity, water, waste collection, etc. In thinking about how to reduce risk in this community, there should be no city services to take into account as capacities or vulnerabilities.

Yet look at the picture. Nearly every house has electricity and water. Many have toilets and sewage. How can this be?

Where government or property developers do not provide basic systems such as roads, power, and water, people often find ways to get those things. In this photo, there are many hoses running across the stream. These hoses have been installed by private entrepreneurs, who have illegally tapped into the city water system. Same with the electric lines. In fact many of those houses also have satellite dishes, and many in the community follow news and events from around the world on television. Walking through the settlement also revealed that entrepreneurs have set up private facilities that provide showers and toilets for a small fee. These are emergent systems – that is, they emerge by the interaction of people with their circumstances, not planned by anyone. Even where official systems don’t exist, people use their genius and energy to find a way. In complex adaptive systems, look for self-organizing systems – those things that come together without oversight or direction from anyone.

In fact the entire community should not be here, since this land is not zoned for residence or business. Yet the lack of suitable housing elsewhere in the city means that residents have few choices of other places to live, and government has few alternatives other than to look the other way.

How can seeing systems help the community reduce risk?


1. System: Electricity

Hazard: Fire — Discussions with residents of this African community, local authorities and emergency personnel showed that one of the biggest hazards in this community was fire from these illegal connections. As a result, the community arranged for an outside technician from the electric company to come in and train local entrepreneurs in how to do safer electrical connections. The local authority agreed to host the trainings, and to levy fines on anyone who continued to use unsafe connections.

2. System: Water and Sanitation

Hazard: Diarrheal disease from dirty water – While awareness of the need for good sanitation and clean drinking water is high, residents simply have few options. Private baths and toilets have sprung up in the community, charging a small fee. Residents now have flexible options, and the business is sustainable. Note: an outside donor recently funded a competing bath and toilet facility, which is charging less than the private businesses. This strikes me as unfair competition. Worse, it undermines local initiative and a long term sustainable solution.

3. System: Sanitation

Hazard and Capacity: Solid Waste – Lack of trash collection turns parts of the settlement into a waste dump, with complications for people’s health and the attractiveness of the neighborhood. Low income inhibits many people from improving their situations. Much of the waste visible in the picture can be recycled, and there is a nascent recycling industry in the city. This is an example of how individual entrepreneurs can take advantage of a hazard and turn it into improved capacity through greater income.

4. System: Ecosystem

Hazard: River – The polluted river that flows through the community poses two hazards:

  1. Pollution in it is a health hazard. Dealing with the pollution hazard means getting the industries upstream to stop dumping industrial waste into it. There are excellent laws in place for that, which are not enforced. So the community would need to form alliances with outside groups with better access to public officials, media, courts, etc. That problem probably cannot be solved by local action alone. But outside action is unlikely to take place without good organization and pressure from community groups. Action at all levels is necessary.
  2. Its location right next to houses poses a flood hazard. There are two solutions here.
    1. First, move the houses farther from the river. Legal restrictions have not functioned well in this area, so simply enforcing building codes is not an option (since the whole community would disappear in that case). Alternatively, there is an ebb and flow of houses closer to and farther away from the river every time it floods. At a point when people voluntarily move away after a flood, the community can organize to keep those houses farther away, and prevent them from creeping back.
    2. Put in mitigation measures in that newly opened up space to keep the houses from moving back in to the river banks. Residents can plant trees along the banks to absorb energy from floods and discourage building back close to the river. They can install simple biological pilings made of bamboo or similar material, and plant deep rooted grasses to protect banks not protected by cement. They can place rocks along the banks and across the river at intervals, again to slow down rushing water when floods occur.

5. System: Social Networks

Some of these solutions individuals can do on their own. But many require community organization. Slum communities are often transient, with people moving in and out all the time as their fortunes change. Surveys in this community showed a fair amount of stability. So while you can’t see it with your eyes in the picture, it was possible to organize people in this community and begin to deal with issues collectively. Of all the interventions possible, organizing people for action in their own interests is often the biggest contributor to building resilience.

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