IRIS-fire is an international and interdisciplinary research project aimed at ‘Improving the Resilience of Informal Settlements against Fire’.
Over one billion people across the globe live in informal shack settlements, and this number is steadily increasing. Many of these informal settlements (i.e. shantytowns, favelas, slums) are at constant risk of lethal, large-scale destructive fires due to flammable construction materials, heating and cooking methods, shack proximity, etc.
For occupants of these shacks death and injury from fire constitute ‘a serious public health problem’; for example 96% of the world’s burn-related deaths (≈300,000/year) occur in lower and middle-income countries (WHO 2016).
Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent on earth, with an average 7% increase in population between 1990-2015, increasing the population in urban clusters by 484 million. The majority of new urban districts are informal settlements constructed ad-hoc using available materials, with no formal space planning, and with few explicit fire safety measures.
Statistics vary, but in South Africa it is estimated that up to 33% of the country’s population now live in informal settlements. In Cape Town the number of informal dwellings grew from 28,000 in 1993 to 104,000 in 2006 and 220,000 in 2011.
This project initially focuses on informal settlements in and around Cape Town, where the burden of shack fires is particularly high. Across South Africa, there are an estimated ten shack fires a day, often leaving residents dead and in some cases many thousands more homeless.
In Cape Town, the ‘fire capital of South Africa’, the situation is particularly stark. Annually there are ≈500 deaths and 15,000 fire-related hospital admissions due to fire in the city, of which substantial proportions are residents of informal settlements.
In recent years there have been numerous large-scale fires in Cape Town, leaving thousands homeless and many dead; Khayelitsha fire, Jan 2013 (4000 homeless, 5 dead); Kayamandi fire, March 2013 (4500 homeless, 2 dead); Masiphumelele fire, Nov 2015 (4000 homeless, 2 dead); the Boxing Day fires, 2015 (8 dead), and the Imizamo Yethu fire, March 2017 (10,000 homeless, 4 dead).
Current discussions on informal settlement policy in South Africa, as in many other jurisdictions internationally, lack the necessary research base to develop creative, interdisciplinary, grounded solutions to fires in informal settlements.
Some policies have stigmatized the individuals living within informal settlements, rather than acknowledging the physical challenges and dynamics that create large-scale fires and exploring ways to practically mitigate the risk factors within the local social and physical context.
In other cases, policies have simply focused on high-end technical solutions, ignoring the complex political, economic and social dynamics of informal settlements within which interventions must be implemented. The key to reducing damage due to fires is to prevent fire spread from the structure of origin; a key concept in western formal settlement design.
Thus the specific challenge for this project is to determine how an interdisciplinary approach to fire science and engineering can improve the resilience of informal settlements against fires.
The research team comprises of engineers and fire safety scientists from The University of Edinburgh and Stellenbosch University, and includes expertise in the social sciences, wildfire and fire dynamics, forensic investigations, and structural fire engineering.
The Western Cape Disaster Management, Fire and Rescue Service are also key partners in the project providing essential expertise and experience of informal settlement fires, as well as their time and resources for the planned experiments.