Tegucigalpa: From climate change adaptation to mitigation strategies in informal urban settlements

Tegucigalpa faces significant challenges in combating urban poverty and climate vulnerability, with high population density and high levels of CO2 emissions. The APCA project seeks to address these challenges through participatory methodologies and community collaboration to strengthen urban resilience and sustainability.

Article, 14 February 2024
Frontrunner cities: connecting climate action and social justice
A series exploring how climate action can contribute to transformative outcomes in cities in the majority world
People building a wall out of disused tyres.

Building retention walls (Photo: IDB, APCA project; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

One of the areas most vulnerable to extreme climate events in Honduras is its capital Tegucigalpa. The lack of land-use plans, inadequate land management and property speculation have led to land invasions and the building of precarious housing in mountainous areas with irregular topography.

More than 112,000 people live in informal settlements that are prone to landslides. The rapidly increasing population coupled with inadequate policies for provision of drinking water and sewerage services have worsened the living conditions of residents of informal settlements. 

Negative economic and social impacts caused by rains, floods and droughts, increase annually, and recurring disasters have a serious impact on the most vulnerable populations. Annual losses amount to US$100 million, almost 2.7% of the city’s GDP (PDF) (in Spanish).

Poverty and inequality are compounded by serious levels of public insecurity, conflict and urban violence. In recent decades the country has gained notoriety for its environmental fragility and its increasing levels of citizen insecurity, and Tegucigalpa has become known as one of the most violent cities in the world. And it is in the poor neighbourhoods of the capital where these levels of violence and insecurity are highest (PDF).  

Given the city’s environmental and social fragility and vulnerability, since the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch in the city in 1998, successive municipal governments have tried to forge alliances with NGOs and grassroots organisations to address these challenges. These efforts often lack methodologies to facilitate partnership building and recognise the key role of local government when working in precarious urban contexts.

I built this wall out of used tyres after my house collapsed two months ago… we women built this wall

Woman resident of Colonia Los Pinos

The ‘Asset Planning for Climate Change Adaptation (APCA)’ project

The APCA project was funded by the Nordic Development Fund through the Inter-American Develoment Bank (IDB). It was led by a team from the University of Manchester and was supported by the Municipal Mayor's Office of the MDC, the international humanitarian agency GOAL, the Foundation for Urban and Rural Social Housing (FUNDEVI), and the Permanent Contingency Commission of Honduras (COPECO). 

Implemented in two low-income neighbourhoods in Tegucigalpa between November 2014 and October 2017, the APCA project demonstrated how participatory planning can help local governments to create effective processes to address the increasing impacts of climate change on their cities, particularly in informal settlements. 

The project uses a conceptual and operational framework based on the assets held and managed by residents of informal settlements. The assets are the stock of physical resources (equipment, housing, infrastructure and basic services), financial resources (savings, credits and income), human resources (health and education), social resources (rules, norms, obligations, reciprocity and mutual trust in social relations, and institutional arrangements in communities and homes) and natural resources (land, atmosphere, forests, minerals, water) that are acquired, developed, improved and transferred across generations

The assets are not simply resources people use to make a living. Assets enable people to be and to act, to challenge and change the rules that govern the control, use and transformation of these resources.  The vulnerability of assets refers to the exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity of such assets to climate-induced risks (PDF).

More than 25% of the country’s urban population live in Honduras’ Central Municipal District, which has the highest concentration of urban poverty in Honduras

The project seeks to address climate change through a participatory methodology and achieve the following objectives:

  • Give voice to citizens in low-income neighbourhoods to enable them to identify the vulnerability of their assets and prioritise their adaptation strategies
  • Give residents a leading role in negotiations with local government and other institutions to plan and implement solutions that are technically feasible, quick to implement, low cost and align with the efforts made by the communities themselves
  • Encourage the establishment of partnerships in which residents, local government and public and private institutions provide resources and expertise based on their comparative advantage, to coordinate efforts to improve their neighborhoods, and
  • Strengthen the capacity of local institutions to integrate climate change adaptation assets into their strategic and operational plans.

The neighbourhoods in which the APCA was implemented, Los Pinos and Villa Nueva, are the two largest informal settlements in Tegucigalpa and are among the nine most dangerous low-income settlements in terms of murder rates.

Key findings

The APCA project shows that at the local level people consider that it is not the major disasters associated with extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and flooding, that affect them most; it is the heatwaves and droughts, compounded by heavy rainfall of short duration, as well as by the dust that accompanies strong winds that blow through the area. These climatic events gradually erode their wellbeing, their community assets, their homes and small businesses. 

The data highlights the different perceptions of the types of weather events that affect them most. While the residents of Los Pinos were mainly affected by heat, in Villa Nueva, it was the cold and the rain. 

The results of the APCA project in Tegucigalpa confirm the findings from studies in Lima, Peru, where the risks from less extreme, but more frequent, weather events often associated with more localised hazards, are invisible to those who make policy decisions on precarious urban neighbourhoods.

The participatory tools used show that the residents in the neighbourhoods develop multiple strategies to protect their assets and minimse the impacts of severe weather events. Many of the solutions relate to protecting their homes, plots of land and existing infrastructure, and provision of basic services. 

They build community storage tanks and domestic rainwater butts. They install water filters, repair and maintain latrines and improve and repair their gutters and steps. They also take part in rubbish clean-up days and preventive health campaigns.

A woman stands and gives a speech in front of other women seated in a circle around her.

Colonia Villa Nueva: training and technical assistance for women for building and strengthening protective walls with used tyres (Photo: IDB, APCA project; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Projects identified and implemented

Collaboration between social institutions and neighbourhood residents is fundamental to generating socially relevant knowledge for policies and practices that contribute to creating sustainable cities. 

The objective of the APCA project, in its initial design and its planning and implementation phases, was not to identify adaptation projects that could contribute to mitigation strategies. But as projects were being implemented and reflected upon, possibilities began to emerge for linking adaptation projects to the challenges of decarbonisation in precarious urban contexts, particularly with an emphasis on community, household and small-business assets. 

Among the projects identified, designed and implemented that demonstrated this link were:

Improvement of stairways and interior roads in Los Pinos: alternative methods were identified and designed to improve stairways on steep sloping terrains, such as creating resting places; soil protection measures to prevent minor landslides; and improved drainage systems on interior roads. The aim was to reduce the speed of the water going down the slopes during the rainy season, and provide resting places on the stairways for residents walking uphill, particularly during heatwaves. 

Additional activities included soil protection and conservation; creation of green spaces for resting and planting trees on individual family plots; and providing technical training in stabilising the foundations of homes built on steep slopes and shading poorly ventilated houses, particularly where residents have blocked or reduced the size of windows due to the high rates of burglary and armed robbery.

Three images: the first shows uneven, dangerous steps; the second shows people tidying up cleaner, safer steps; the third in an artists diagram of a house with with safe stairways.

Los Pinos neighbourhood,Tegucigalpa: design for improved stairways. The design takes into account the needs of vulnerable groups: planting trees, establishing resting places and including energy dissipating boxes to reduce the force and speed of the water flowing down through the gutters (IDB, APCA project; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Retention walls made from used tyres: the residents of both neighbourhoods have identified improvement of retention walls as a priority, particularly those made from used tyres and filled with soil. Many families build retention walls on the plots of land where they live to prevent land slips and mudslides in the rainy season. 

Many such walls have been built without proper technical supervision and with serious construction deficiencies that put at risk the investments made by residents with great effort and sacrifice, particularly single-mother heads of households.

Under the technical guidance of APCA staff, a pilot project to strengthen the walls made of tyres was implemented in Villa Nueva. A construction manual (in Spanish) was produced and women were trained in the technical aspects of building and maintaining the retention walls. With help from community members and council staff, and supervised by engineers and architects, a wall made from used tyres in one of the housing units was reinforced.

Strengthening water catchment systems: residents have difficulty accessing drinking water and water for cooking, washing, cleaning and in some cases water for their small businesses. 

During visits to the neighbourhoods, APCA members noticed that harvesting rainwater was a common practice among households and that there were possibilities to improve the existing technologies or introduce new ones. 

Residents highlighted the importance of better technology for rainwater harvesting in homes, schools and health centres. On higher ground where the soil was less stable, heavy concrete water tanks destabilised the soil further and even led to subsidence in the plots. So closed and sealed plastic tanks, preferably with filters, were introduced to improve the quality and increase the supply of water. 

These solutions were linked to the Techos dignos [decent roofs] roof-upgrading programme, administererd by AMDC. AMDC also decided to improve the water harvesting facilities in nine neighbourhoods, including Los Pinos and Villa Nueva. 

The pilot project installed different technologies for collecting water in schools, health centres and community centres, with geomembranes, water tanks and high-capacity plastic tanks. The project trained teachers, health workers, members of neighbourhood organisations and water committees in the installation, management and maintenance of these technologies.

Looking forward

To date, climate action plans have tended to focus on adaptation or mitigation, but there has been a change of focus recently with both strategies being addressed simultaneously. 

The introduction of urban green infrastructure (UGI) and effective management of the water sector have played an important role in adaptating to the impacts of climate change events (PDF) (such as flooding, extreme temperatures and drought). At the same time they have contributed to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.  

Trees and plants not only hlep to capture and reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but they can also reduce surrounding temperatures and reduce the electricity consumption required to mitigate the effects of urban heat islands. 

As well as making the city more attractive, UGI can also provide ecosystem services such as pollutant capture, shade regulation, temperature reduction, water filtration and support for urban and peri-urban biodiversity, thereby reducing adaptation costs. UGI should therefore become part of urban design and planning, and its implementation should be prioritised in neighbourhoods where homes are poorly ventilated, and where there is overcrowding and a scarcity of public open spaces, as it is in these neighbourhoods that the risk of mortality and morbidity increases.

The APCA project in Tegucigalpa highlights concrete ways to simultaneously implement adaptation and mitigation strategies, particularly in informal urban settlements. Examples of this are: 

  • Green infrastructure projects for planting trees, that serve as carbon sinks and prevent mudslides in areas with steep slopes
  • Rainwater harvesting in homes and community centres, which can alleviate drought at the same time as helping to reduce the city's water stress
  • The use of recycled tyres to build retention walls to prevent landslides and reduce the burning of tyres, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, and
  • More efficient waste collection systems to prevent waste from being burnt in the open air and increase greenhouse gases and other health-damaging pollutants.

Action taken in the construction, transport, energy and waste management sectors relate to mitigation, because of the energy-saving benefits they achieve through improved efficiency, but they also contribute to adaptation. Hence the relevance of considering joint adaptation and mitigation strategies to accelerate sustainable low-carbon urban development.

Further reading


Head and shoulders photos of Alfredo Stein.

Alfredo Stein (alfredo.stein@manchester.ac.uk) is a lecturer in urban development planning at the University of Manchester. 

He would like to acknowledge the University of Manchester team that worked on the APCA project; Caroline Moser, Irene Vance and Carlos Escobar.