A United Nations (UN) report on the world’s cities published last week has highlighted the scale of global poverty and the growth of slums.
It points out that next year will be a turning point in world history – for the first time the majority will live in an urban environment. The growth in urban living will be concentrated in Asia and Africa.
Both continents are expected to become predominantly urban by 2030. By then the urban population of Africa is predicted to be larger than the total population of Europe.
Most of the new urban dwellers will be absorbed by smaller cities with populations of a few hundred thousands up to five million. But there will also be a growing number of “megacities” with populations greater than ten million, especially in the Global South.
Cities are crucial centres of economic activity. For even the poorest and least urbanised countries, the UN estimates that cities generate up to 55 percent of gross national product.
However, those arriving in cities of the Global South will see little of this wealth and many will not find stable employment. In Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America between 60 and 80 percent work in the informal sector.
Many of the new city dwellers, about one billion according to the new UN report, will live in sprawling slums that are now a home to a third of the world’s urban population. Slums are characterised by one or more of:
- A lack of durable housing to protect against the climate.
- Insufficient living space with more than three people living in a single room.
- Lack of access to safe water in sufficient quantities at affordable prices.
- Lack of access to adequate sanitation.
- Insecurity of tenure leading to forced evictions.
In Sub-Saharan Africa more than two thirds of the urban population live in these conditions. Nine million more pour into these slums each year.
One of the most damning findings of the report is that the fate of urban dwellers is often as bad as those left behind in rural areas. It finds that “in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Haiti and India, child malnutrition in slums is comparable to that of rural areas.
“In many Sub-Saharan African cities, children living in slums are more likely to die from water borne and respiratory illnesses than rural children.”
The report also highlights the problems in two cities in the developed world – New Orleans and Paris.
Commenting on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it argues, “With the storm came a flood of facts about real life conditions for average denizens of New Orleans… more than 28 percent of whom lived in poverty – double the national average of 12.4 percent.
“Of those living in poverty, 84 percent were African-American… As in many parts of the developing world, the poorest residents of New Orleans lived in the most hazardous areas of the city.”
On Paris, it states, “For refugees from African slums seeking a better life in Europe, Paris offers little relief from the insecurity and destitution they experienced at home.
“Official estimates show that more than 200,000 people are homeless or living in temporary shelter in the city.”
It argues that economic exclusion and systematic racist discrimination were the main factor behind last year’s riots in Paris and other French cities.