Participatory workshops in the aftermath of Kerala floods

Our project fieldwork in Kochi over the summer and autumn of 2018 did not run as smoothly compared to that of Thiruvanthapuram earlier in the year – though this was  due to events beyond our control. The state was met with unprecedented floods in the monsoon season – causing the Kerala flooding crisis of summer 2018. Abnormally high rainfall between June and mid-August 2018 resulted in severe flooding in all but one district across the state of Kerala. Over 400 lives were lost in the floods and ensuing landslides, with many reported missing . The crisis halted activity across the state, disrupting  daily lives and businesses, even for those parts of the state that were not badly affected, such as Thiruvananthapuram.  Communities and organisations, including our societal partner Sakhi,  came together to volunteer and organise relief efforts, assisting state, national and even international endeavours. Social media also played a role in assisting relief efforts – activists, celebrities local politicians and even the Chief Minister of Kerala all used their social media platforms to raise awareness and provide immediate updates on relief needs. The importance of connected and robust infrastructures – physical, social and digital – in ensuring resilience and protection from ecological disasters was highlighted in the events of 2018 in Kerala. 

However, for the families living in our fieldwork site in Fort Kochi – a former government housing colony developed in the 1970s – flooding and its visceral impacts due to weak underlying sewage infrastructures are an annual event during each monsoon season. While the scale in 2018 was unprecedented, the social and economic disruption and health risks bought on by flooding and disconnected infrastructures are a frequent reality for those living in low-income neighbourhoods, often most directly affecting women and children. As one woman living in the neighbourhood told us, “Every year this is the situation. It is not every year, even if it rains today, water will enter here.” From the end of June 2018 onward, the neighbourhood was flooded, forcing residents to wade ankle-deep in water, store possessions on their roofs, and many to take refuge in shelters.

The routine impacts of flooding are described by the women in the neighbourhood

Once the water enters there is nothing we can use, except this hall. Water will be flowing from the walls and all. It first enters our house and then to other houses. The kitchen area – we cannot go there. The bedroom since it is lying low, water enters there too. It is very difficult to use the toilets. We have to swim, and it is dirty water too. The drainage is only cleaned every six months.

By September 2018, the flooding had subsided, and our fieldwork was able to resume. However with no real change made to the underlying waste management infrastructures and sewage systems in the neighbourhood, it is likely the community will have to continue to face floods in the future.

On a sweltering hot day in December 2018, our London team returned to the field-site where Sakhi had been continuing fieldwork in the intervening months. Hardly any signs of the flooding damage remained in Kochi at large, or in the area of Fort Kochi where the neighbourhood is based, beyond the reach of many key infrastructures or smart city developments.  Many households had used their own savings or borrowed money to construct raised floors to protect from future flooding damage.

20181208_154501
Raised doorways and steps to prevent flooding damage. Kochi December 2018. Photo credit: Nabeela Ahmed

With these events in mind, we gathered in a community hall the southern quarter of Fort Kochi, a water-bound area in the city of Kochi. To mark the end of our fieldwork, we held a series of collective workshop activities to collectively understand the main issues facing women in the community. The workshops were held over two days with 15 women of various ages – some of whom our local partners, Sakhi had conducted interviews and safety walks with, and some who participated out of interest. We started with community asset mapping – a participatory method developed in the early 1990s by Kretzmann and McKnight to foster community development. Community members identify and collectively conduct an ‘inventory’ of key community assets such as infrastructure, institutions, and natural resources. These assets are collectively mapped and organised according to priority and need. The asset map can then be analysed to highlight where assets can be strengthened, or gaps in assets can be addressed,  to help develop community-based interventions.

As with the community we worked with in Trivandrum, most of the women placed ‘drainage’ (sewage) systems at the centre of the map as the most important infrastructure and the biggest asset gap. Local community leaders were placed adjacent with or above household members (e.g. husbands) in the ‘people’ category. Local community leaders also came above formal state institutions such as the councillor’s office or the local municipality.

A time and gender mapping activity came next. Groups were given maps of the city of Kochi to identify areas they considered safe and unsafe according to the criteria of gender and temporality.  Different coloured pens and bindis were used to code areas where men are present; women are present; at night-time and day-time.

The final exercise was based on digital capacity-building. The women were divided into groups and accompanied around the neighbourhood to conduct a manual audit on the Safetipin app.

On the second day of our two-part community workshop, we drew from the previous day’s discussion and findings from the mapping and audit activities to identify a key collective issue that could be represented in a formal petition to be presented to the Kochi Municipal Corporation. The key issues the women collectively agreed on are outlined below.

Flooding

According to the women in the Kochi community, flooding was cited as the most pressing issue. The summer floods of 2018 highlighted the extent of devastation that can be caused by flooding, however women in low income settlements have been facing flooded households for many years. The lack of raised foundations, and poorly maintained sewage systems in low-income settlements in a broader topographical context of low-lying land with a high-water table exposes such communities to even greater risks of flooding and water contamination.

Safe cities starts at home

“Our drainage is blocked and the local authorities have not taken one step to clean it!”

According to the women in the community, one’s house is an important haven for safety when public spaces don’t seem safe. However, when one’s very own house is prone to risk of flooding, the feeling of safety is removed even from this intimate scale.

Multiple complaints about the lack of flood-resistant infrastructure in the neighbourhood had been lodged to the local municipal authorities. However, in the summer of 2018, the local authorities themselves were affected by the flooding. After a lively discussion among the participants of the workshop, facilitated by the team members and Sakhi, the issue of poor sewage systems was identified as the key issue to raise with local authorities and the only way  for change was  through a complete overhaul and transformation of the underlying sewage system. Though the workshop participants foresaw some resistance from certain members of the community regarding a temporary relocation during construction, they committed to engaging community advocacy and discussion to convince the neighbourhood community overall. The different forms of disconnected infrastructures faced by the women in Kochi and extend across the city in terms of limited transport. last-mile-connectivity or digital infrastructures but as our community workshop activities highlight, they start at the intimate household level and affect the daily lives of women.  The impacts of frequent flooding and broken infrastructures may not attract as much relief or news coverage as large-scale disasters such as the summer 2018 flooding but can equally have devastating impacts over time.

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