Nurturing Resilience amidst Multiple Crises: The Story of Informal Settlements in Lilongwe City

1.0 Introduction

Informal settlements in Lilongwe City – home to more than 76% of the city’s population, are facing a convergence of crises that have reshaped their socio-economic landscape. These crises include the growing poverty inequality, climate change induced disasters, the Covid-19 pandemic, the cholera outbreak and looming hunger. Recently, there has been a significant increase of extensive disasters and their impacts on cities either in reference to losses related to damaged homes, affected people or damage to physical infrastructure.  Gender, income and location have significant implications for the vulnerability of people. Partners have continued to adopt a reactive stance to disaster risks instead of adopting a more proactive and transformative attitude, as promoted by the Sendai Framework and this has exacerbate existing challenges and further endangered residents’ wellbeing.

The term resilience defines a paradigm shift in approach from the risk management rather than the crisis aspects of management in the disaster cycle. Resilience puts into perspective processes that need to be changed with the long-term objectives that can build coping capacity within a system, in disaster context, communities. This involves the ability to absorb disturbances while maintaining the same functions and at the same time allowing development (Pal et al, 2021). There is evidence that informal settlements in the city of Lilongwe are adopting various coping strategies in dealing with the multiple crises affecting their communities. 

2.0 The crises in perspective

The land market failure is pushing low-income groups into locations that are prone to disasters, and four out of every ten non-permanent houses are now located in areas threatened by floods, landslides, and other natural hazards (UN Habitat, 2009). Low-income groups are also defined to be with the least resilience. Informal settlements dwellers are widely recognized as inherently vulnerable to climate change and other crises.  It is indeed true that recently, people living in informal settlements in the city of Lilongwe have been exposed to multiple crises i.e., floods, cyclones and heavy winds. This has resulted in the decline in family investment, employment opportunities, job losses, income reduction, and an expanding wealth gap. Consequently, poverty rates in informal settlements have soared, severely compromising the ability of residents to afford basic necessities. The Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA) reports the long-term impact of such crises places many children, pregnant women, and lactating mothers at risk of malnutrition.

2.1 The post Covid19 crisis

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic brought lasting changes to people’s lives. There has been reported loss of income and employment due to lockdowns and other disease control measures travel restrictions constraining mobility to access markets and livelihoods opportunities, and higher costs of staples such as food (Lenhardt, 2021).Reduced consumer spending power has led to a decline in the demand for goods and services, resulting in decreased revenues and financial instability. These economic hardships disproportionately affect marginalized populations living in informal settlements, who already lack access to basic services and face issues such as overcrowding and inadequate healthcare. The pandemic’s economic impact has deepened poverty levels, pushing vulnerable communities further into hardship.

2.2 The cholera outbreak

Malawi is experiencing the deadliest Cholera outbreak in the country’s history with over 50,000 cases and over 1,500 deaths since March 2022 (CDC, 2022).  In urban areas, the outbreak has thrived in informal settlements as a result of WASH conditions. In the majority of the informal settlements in Lilongwe people are still drawing water from unprotected hand dug wells and many families sharing temporary pit latrines with a small percentage practicing open defecation. There is evidence that healthcare facilities struggled to cope up at the pick of the outbreak.  As a result, the outbreak has exerted a lot of suffering on families but perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that cholera is both predictable and preventable. What is needed is an investment in the WASH sector – including properly designed massaging, to decisively deal with this challenge

2.3 Climate change adding salt to the injury

Climate change presents a complex crisis that affects not only the environment but also the most vulnerable communities – mostly those in informal settlements. Common challenges facing informal settlements in Malawi include floods, storms, and landslides.  The impact of climate change on slum dwellers includes water contamination, health risks, and threats to their livelihoods. These communities are affected repeatedly throughout the year, but do not have the knowledge and resources to respond sustainably and protect themselves against future disasters. The effects of climate change make the lives of people living in informal settlements even more challenging and unbearable.

2.4 The looming hunger crisis

The Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC 2022) reports that an estimated 3.8 million people in Malawi are facing severe acute food insecurity, with the situation projected to continue to worsen because of high food prices. Natural hazards, disease outbreaks, and declining livelihood opportunities resulting from the impact of COVID-19 have been intensifying the food security crisis. In the urban areas, the covid-19 crisis has limited the job opportunities and consequently source of income, especially for people working in the informal sector or depending on manual jobs (IPC, 2022). Immediate interventions are crucial to address this impending crisis and ensure food security for the population.

3.0 Resilience amidst adversity

Despite the myriad challenges that informal settlements are facing, there is evidence resilience. Residents are using various coping strategies to sail through the various crises they are being faced with some of these strategies include:

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  • Diversification of income sources: Relying on a single source of income can make individuals vulnerable to sudden shocks or long-term changes. Diversification is a risk management strategy that mixes a wide variety of investments within a portfolio. A diversified portfolio contains a mix of distinct asset types and investment vehicles in an attempt at limiting exposure to any single asset or risk
  1. Embarking on urban agriculture: Urban farming at small scale in informal settlements is improving food security by enabling households to grow their own fresh produce, reducing their reliance on expensive and inaccessible food sources. By engaging in urban agriculture, households are generating income through selling surplus produce, contributing to economic empowerment.
  2. Utilizing community savings groups: Savings groups allow residents to pool their resources and provide each other with financial support. These are decentralized, non-institutional groups that provide people excluded from the formal banking sector with a trusted, accessible, and relatively simple source of microfinance. Additionally, savings groups can serve as a platform for social support (including community mobilisation), learning, and capacity building.
  3. Exploring traditional medicine cope with health-related challenges: Limited access to healthcare has led residents to rely on alternative methods to address health issues.
  4. Community support networks: Residents have formed networks to provide each other with emotional and practical support.

These strategies have helped residents to mitigate financial hardships and build resilience in the face of multiple crises.


Informal settlements are using community data to advocate for improved service delivery.  Using community generated resources, some have started implementing community-led initiatives that address pressing issues such as waste management and youth employment. Thus, despite their present situation there is a ray of hope stemming from their unwavering resilience and determination. These communities are actively engaged in collective endeavors, employing coping strategies and spearheading community-led initiatives, all aimed at forging a path towards a more promising future.

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