Dr. Laila Rashed Iskandar, Egypt's Minister of State for Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements. (Photo: UNISDR)
By Jonathan Fowler
SENDAI, 16 March 2015
– Granting property rights to slum dwellers is a key tool for reducing the risk of disasters striking such communities, Egypt’s Minister of State for Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements Laila Rashed Iskandar said today.
“About half of the population of Egypt lives in informal settlements. Some of them are in habitable situations and others not,” Minister Iskandar said at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.
“So we decided to take bold new steps, mainly one of no forced evictions. Prior to the establishment of my ministry in 2014, there had been many cases of forced evictions,” she explained.
“It’s a rights-based approach,” she added.
Minister Iskandar said that she has a longstanding relationship with campaigning organizations such as Shack/Slum Dwellers International, and drew on their lessons when crafting Egypt’s new legislation. That has notably involved dialogue with communities over how to improve their settlements.
All told, there are 40 million informal settlement dwellers in Egypt, out a national population of some 90 million. Sixty percent of them live in Greater Cairo.
Around a million Egyptian slum dwellers live in what are considered unsafe areas, at risk of hazards such as floods and landslides.
“This is about resilience to disasters and empowering communities as well,” Minister Iskandar said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
After discussions with residents of informal settlements, and taking into account hazards, the authorities and communities themselves decide whether it is better for them to remain or to move to a new area. Involving them in decision-making on disaster resilience is crucial, said Minister Iskandar.
In both cases, the authorities provide funding to acquire land or approve housing in existing settlements. Overall, Egypt has already budgeted the equivalent of US$143 million for the programme.
In return for that help, and for receiving property rights, residents are brought into a new property tax system, thereby helping offset part of the costs. In addition, the government has allocated 25 percent of that tax to upgrading settlements.
The authorities have launched a landmark project in the Egyptian capital’s Maspero Triangle district, where informal settlements of around 12,000 people are tucked in among high-end real estate. Poor residents were fearful that urban gentrification projects would force them out, and granting them property rights calms those fears and also encourages them to spend money on improving their homes, Minister Iskandar said.
“Land rights in turn are therefore allowing us to improve the neighbourhoods of informal settlements,” she said, noting that companies tendering for construction projects in such areas were now legally obliged to have a track record of involving the community in their planning.
“The goal is, as much as possible, to keep people living and working where they are,” Minister Iskandar underlined.