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close this bookThe Courier N 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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View the documentLivable cities and rural rights
View the documentTowards a global concept of urban development - an interview with Daby Diagne
View the documentHabitat II: taking stock
View the document'A house to call my own'
View the documentMegacities
View the documentLagos under stress
View the documentA Eurocrat in Istanbul
View the documentThe exploding city
View the documentAdequate housing in the EU: rights and realities
View the documentCities of the Third World
View the documentWhen conservation is at odds with the local population
View the documentA new 'eco-centre' in West Africa: Two Presidents amid the dust
View the documentThe RDP challenge
View the documentTargeting South Africa's poor
View the document'Guardians of Eden'

Cities of the Third World

by Francis Cass

In ten or so years' time, more than half the world's population will be living in built-up areas and, according to UN figures, by 2025 nearly two thirds of us will live in towns and cities. This is not a complete surprise - over the last few decades, the ratio of city dwellers to rural people has consistently moved in 'favour' of the former. In 1950, 29% of people were city dwellers. Since 1985, the urban population has exceeded 40% of the global total.

Today, we are witnessing an acceleration in demographic growth, especially in developing countries. Of the 2.6 billion people who currently live in towns, 1.6 billion live in the world's least developed regions. By 2025, the urban population of the Third World will have risen to 3.2 billion, out of a global urban population of just over 4 billion. On the basis of these figures, it is estimated that the number of urban dwellers in developing countries is increasing by approximately 150 000 people each day! In Cape Town in South Africa, for example, as in many towns and cities of the Third World, this demographic explosion can actually be seen happening. All you need to do is drive regularly along the N2 motor way - which passes through the shanty towns of Khayelitsha and Guguletu - to see how, week by week, the makeshift dwellings are spreading - gradually expanding to every available plot of land. The same scene is repeated in all of Africa's large towns. In Cot'lvoire, the population of Abidjan rises by 400 inhabitants a day on average. In Gabarone, the capital of Botswana, whose population was barely 3000 at the time of independence in the 1960s, the population is increasing by 18% each year and today 160 000 people live there. Such growth is often accompanied by widespread indifference on the part of local authorities. Such indifference is due, in particular, to a shortage of financial resources, but it also reflects an absence of political will to do anything to tackle the problem.

Demography and poverty

The demographic explosion which has taken place in the urban areas of developing countries is due to three main factors: natural population growth, rural emigration to towns and cities, and (less importantly) the redefinition of the administrative boundaries of built-up areas. The first two factors are equally to 'blame' but in future, it is predicted that rural depopulation in Africa will become the single most important element in urban population growth. This will be especially true of countries where there is rampant rural poverty. In this context, we need to recognise other circumstances, such as famine, desertification, a shortage of cultivable land and conflicts, which serve to exacerbate the phenomenon. If people living in the countryside decide to migrate to towns, it is because they are looking for a better life and hope to improve their standard of living. Few succeed. According to a World Bank study, 50% of people in abject poverty will be living in urban areas by the year 2000.

The effects that urban poverty has on the environment are often dramatic. The reverse is also true. A damaged environment constitutes a daily hazard for town and city dwellers, in particular the most destitute. The precarious nature of their living conditions means that only in extremely rare cases are these people able to guard against the degeneration of their immediate surroundings. Driven to the outer limits of the towns - where even basic infrastructures such as sewers and the collection of household waste are often lacking, the poorest sections of society are left to fend for themselves. Local authorities have neither the means nor (often) the inclination to do anything to help them. Even those who are comfortably off and who can afford to give part of their income to safeguard their immediate environment (thereby protecting themselves to some extent) cannot escape the consequences of more general ecological problems such as air pollution and the contamination of water supplies. Living in a modern house in a well-to-do district is simply not enough. It is not possible to shield oneself completely from the problems created by environmental destruction. For example, even an unofficial rubbish tip, located several kilometres away from a residential area, can have disastrous effects on groundwater - meaning that sooner or later, the quality of the drinking water will suffer.

Towns gasping for water...

At present, the vast majority of Third World towns are facing a series of ecological problems which directly or indirectly, affect the lives of their inhabitants. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 220 million city dwellers have no access to drinking water and 420 million have no latrines. It does not take much to imagine the potentially catastrophic health consequences of such a situation - in which people are forced to drink and irrigate their land with water from contaminated sources. The WHO has estimated that three million children died during 1993 as a direct result of diarrhoea, and that nearly two million of these victims had consumed drinking water contaminated with faecal matter. In developing countries, 90% of waste water is poured, completely untreated, into rivers, lakes and coastal waters. Again, one can easily imagine the impact on marine flora and fauna, and on the health of those who eat the products fished from these waters.

...and gasp for breath

As far as air quality is concerned, the WHO intimates that more than a billion city dwellers throughout the world breathe highly polluted air. For the most part, this pollution is generated by industry and motor vehicles. A small improvement has been recorded in the urban areas of developed countries, but air quality in the towns and cities of the South has deteriorated considerably during recent years.

There are many reasons for this. First, there has been an increase in industrial activity, mainly concentrated around towns and cities. This is a result of economic development, but also of the fact that many factories - including some with the worst pollution records - have relocated from the North to the South, where legislation governing emissions is less stringent. Second, in contrast to the trends seen in developed countries - where cars are usually well-maintained, (running on unleaded petrol and rarely more than five years old) motor vehicles in the Third World - whose numbers are increasing significantly - are frequently old, badly maintained and run on leaded fuel. According to the World Bank, 95% of the lead polluting the air in the towns and cities of developing countries comes from vehicles which run on leaded petrol and studies carried out on the subject have revealed concentrations of up to 1.5 microgrammes of lead per cubic metre of air. In North America and Europe the concentration varies between 0.2 and 0.8 microgrammes per cubic metre.

Another problem facing towns and cities in the southern hemisphere arises from the enormous amounts of waste they produce and from the fact that they have few treatment facilities. In many cases, the rubbish is not even collected and is left to accumulate into the piles which can often be seen on the edges of shanty towns. This accumulation of refuse encourages the proliferation of certain diseases and poses a real threat to the health of residents both nearby and further away. In addition to this ordinary, everyday waste, the countries of the Third World have to deal with problems generated by toxic waste - not just their own, but also that which is 'exported' there by industrialised countries. Needless to say, the towns which actually have the means and facilities needed to treat this highly polluting waste are few and far between.

Linking development with environmental protection

While environmental problems have a direct impact on human health and on the natural world, they also entail huge economic costs. The effect of pollution on human health translates into ever-increasing health costs and a decline in productivity. And it is not only city dwellers who suffer the consequences of a deteriorating urban environment. Depending on their size, the degree of industrial activity and population concentration, towns and cities pollute and destroy areas well beyond their own administrative boundaries. They swallow up enormous amounts of natural resources, suck their hinterlands dry and spit out 'what is left'.

Nowadays, there is an increasing global consensus over the need to tackle these growing problems rapidly. This was seen clearly at the Habitat II Conference in Istanbul. Most cities of the southern hemisphere urgently need to get to grips with their numerous ecological problems - the alternative is to sink further into chaos. In a similar vein, it has become obvious that some sort of balance must be found between economic development and safeguarding the environment - and that considerable investments are needed to achieve this.

Solutions do exist. Recycling projects, for example, could provide jobs for large numbers of town and city dwellers, as well as cleaning up the environment. Governments of industrialised nations should take the necessary steps to ensure that their toxic waste does not end up in the rubbish dumps of the countries of the South. Authorities in urban areas in the Third World should set aside more of their budgets to help the most underprivileged sections of their populations, so that they can manage their own environment. Local authorities should also respond more efficiently to the basic needs of impoverished districts, not least by building roads and sewer systems, by ensuring that rubbish is collected and by guaranteeing all people access to drinking water.

Last but not least, a concerted effort - especially a concerted financial effort - should be made by decision-makers at the local, national and international levels. We need to recognise that environmental damage is a phenomenon which rarely confines itself to the local level. Sooner or later, it becomes a problem for all of us.