Iraq’s Housing Crisis: Upgrading Settlements for Internally Displaced Persons

SMArchS Thesis, Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Spring 2013

The most recent war in Iraq has resulted in a large wave of internal and external displacement with increased sectarian violence and ethnic tension. Subsequent conflict has exacerbated conditions within the nation and further increased displacement. Throughout the country, over one million Iraqis are currently displaced. Inadequately supported by infrastructure due to a negligent dictatorship and consecutive wars, over 250 settlements have peppered Baghdad’s landscape and aggravated the capital’s insufficient infrastructure. It is clear that the rapid rate at which informal settlements for internally displaced persons (IDPs) are being established exceeds the rate in which settlements are forming. Many settlements have exhibited user-initiated incremental housing processes. The topic of this thesis is upgrading settlements for IDPs in Baghdad, Iraq through user-initiated methods. Baghdad is facing an overwhelming amount of sub-standard IDP settlements, and while some settlements are turning into slums, other settlements are becoming more durable.

Community action can be a solution for the problems addressed in semi-durable settlements that have exhibited enough solidarity through incremental processes to reach a semi-durable state. This thesis examines the solution through three methods. First, it looks at a historical review of incremental housing processes parallel to Iraq’s housing policies and history to understand the nation’s current housing crisis. It finds that Iraq has struggled in addressing housing needs for the low-income sector since its independence. Following the historical review, this thesis screens IDP settlements in Baghdad to evaluate the feasibility of upgrade for different types of settlement. In the screening process, settlements that exhibit semi-durable characteristics and are available for secure tenure are most eligible for upgrade. One particular semi-durable settlement is studied: Al-Sadeq in Baghdad’s peripheries. Al-Sadeq is evaluated based on the following measures of durability: infrastructure, housing, and social networks. As hypothesized, findings supported the role of incremental housing principles and community action to improve the settlement’s state of durability.

Lessons are extracted from community field research. As hypothesized, social cohesion and community action are the catalysts that allow incremental methods of infrastructure and housing improvements to thrive. This is especially important in a conflict zone as Baghdad, where displacement is often a direct outcome of danger. In such environments, social networks can provide feelings of security to invest in development. Lessons for communities like Al-Sadeq include the power of community action in incremental housing processes and user-initiated development. Lessons from the historical review shed light on the ineffective solutions for mitigating social housing concerns in the nation’s past. Lessons for the government in this study challenge the lack of an established tradition of community action in public sector projects in Iraq.

Images: Courtesy of the Norwegian Refugee Council.