At Mathari Hospital, flanking Nairobi’s Mathare slum, a grandmother waited in line to see a doctor, struggling to calm the crying baby in her arms.
“It’s the heat rashes,” she told a nurse, rolling off a linen cloth covering the baby’s inflamed skin before she was ushered in to see a doctor.
As climate change brings more heat extremes around the world, cities are facing particular problems — and slums are particularly strongly affected in many places, scientists said.
In Nairobi, for instance, summer temperatures in the Kibera, Mathare and Mukuru slums are often higher than in other parts of the city, a study by scientists at Johns Hopkins University found.
Peak summer temperatures in all three slums were more than 2.2°C higher than those recorded at the Kenya Meteorological Department offices, in a wooded area about a kilometer from Kibera, the city’s largest slum, the scientists said.
“The slums are hotter because of lack of trees and vegetation,” Anna Scott, a climate scientist from the university and a lead author of the study, said in an e-mail interview.
Poor construction materials and, in some cases, lower elevation also contribute to the warming in the slums, she said.
“Our study suggests that this problem [of temperature rise] is not likely to get better in the future unless changes in building and urban design standards are applied,” she said.
Residents of Nairobi’s slums said the rising temperatures are an increasingly noticeable problem.
Steve Ochieng’, who works with a waste management group in Kibera, told the reporters that he believed thin roofing materials — such as tin — and overcrowding are adding to heat problems in homes there.
When temperatures in February last year peaked at 32°C — well above normal Nairobi highs — at his tin-roofed home, “I got really scared because I was feeling like the sun was just above our heads,” he said.
“I started thinking the biblical end days had come where sinners would be destroyed with fire,” he said.
Hotter temperatures particularly hurt some of the slum’s most vulnerable people, who might be confined to poorly ventilated homes, said George Ndung’u Kamau, an officer with Helpage International, an international charity that assists older people.
“People who are not able to move about, like the elderly and children, are adversely affected by heat-related stress,” Ndung’u Kamau said.
That burden is particularly a problem in slums, Ndung’u Kamau said, because a larger number of households there are headed by older people, who might be watching grandchildren as parents work elsewhere.
Drinking lots of water can help cut the risks from extreme heat, but tainted water supplies in some slums can also mean that more people fall ill when the heat rises and families look for drinking water wherever they can, Ochieng’ said.
Hot summer weather can be good news for some people, such as Solomon Miundo, an artist in Kibera who sells T-shirts, post cards and other products.
“I sell more artifacts during summer because this is the time tourists like to visit slums,” said Miundo, who also goes by the trade name Solo Seven.
However, after a particularly hot past year, “I have been asking myself why there is too much sun and less rain,” he said.
Slum residents said one way to deal with the worsening heat would be to plant more trees.
“People should plant a lot of trees because it enables air circulation, attracts rains and brings shade,” Kibera resident Mohamed Abdullahi said.
Waste sites in slums, in particular, could be planted with trees, he said.
Kenyan Member of Parliament Kenneth Okoth, who serves the Kibera constituency, said he fears that rising heat could boost other threats in Nairobi’s slums as well.
“When it is too hot in the house, the youth move out to open spaces where it is cooler,” Okoth said.
In some cases, that might lead to increases in crime, he said.
However, he said his office is working with local and international non-governmental organizations to build more modern homes in slums that can better withstand rising temperatures.
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