Friday, April 20, 2007

Half the World's Population Urban Dwellers, 1 Billion in Slums

Sources: The Arrival of Homo Urbanus; UN Habitat Fund to Finance Slum Housing; Proper Policies Key to Upgrading Slums; Health, Environment Threatened by Future Urban Growth; Sustainable Urbanisation Key to Fighting Urban Poverty; UN-HABITAT

The 21st Session of the governing council of the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) met this week in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. Kenya is home to one of the world’s largest slums, Kibera, with over 750,000 inhabitants Delegates to the meeting, entitled “Sustainable Urbanisation: Local Action for Urban Poverty Reduction,” contributed reports on the impact of unplanned and chaotic urbanization on the rule of law, the environment, disease, gender inequality, poverty, as well as the private sector’s role in developing and financing solutions.

This year marks the first time in history that more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, “mostly in low-income urban settlements in developing countries,” according to Zoe Chafe of Worldwatch International. Executive Director of UN-Habitat, Anna Tibaijuka coined the term homo urbanus to describe the swell of slum dwellers, whose worldwide population of one billion is projected to double in the next thirteen years. Slums are characterized by “shelter deprivations,” a term which denotes lack of water, lack of sanitation, overcrowding, non-durable housing, and a lack of security of tenure. Worldwatch International’s report, “Our Urban Future,” found that 1.6 million people in slums die annually due to lack of clean water and sanitation, while 800,000 people die from urban pollution.

The UN-Habitat Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE) reported this week that, over the past three years in particular, illegal arbitrary evictions have become a common practice in both developed and developing countries. AGFE found that the lack of comprehensive planning for urban development and environmental policies as well as inappropriate regulatory frameworks governing land use, occupancy, and ownership have contributed to the trend of massive-scale evictions in at least 60 countries.

Ninety-five percent of urban growth in the next twenty years will be absorbed by developing nations. Some developing countries are set to triple their entire urban areas within thirty years, yet they already face cash shortages that prevent them from providing adequate basic services and facilities. Weak and poorly financed local governments have been unable to secure and distribute sufficient supplies of clean water to residents and manage solid waste disposal. Tibaijuka notes that despite their poverty, slum dwellers must pay four to 100 times more for water than affluent people. In Kenya, slum dwellers buy expensive water from water trucks; there have been cases in which the water was obtained from contaminated sources and resulted in cholera and typhoid. These shortfalls compound many of the problems the UN’s Millennium Development Goals have singled out, such as maternal mortality, child mortality, and the spread of illness such as diarrhea, malaria and HIV/AIDS. Girls in slum areas are four time more at risk of contracting HIV. The growth of slums also widens the gender education gap. In Uganda, for instance, 74% of women between the ages of 15 and 24 cite lack of money as the reason for dropping out of school.

Presentations at this week’s session in Nairobi emphasized the role micro-finance could play in slum upgrading and prevention. With the emergence of micro-finance institutions, more urban households are able to borrow money for shelter development. Currently, slum dwellings in Africa are often built on public land for which the slumlord holds not title deeds and therefore no legal claim to the land. The slumlords quickly put up makeshift shacks that lack any water supply or sanitation facility and are able to recoup their costs within nine months. UN-Habitat plans to establish a revolving fund to enable slum dwellers to build their own houses. An independent account will provide loans to low-income groups. As each loan is repaid, the money becomes available for further loans. Community-based organizations and municipalities will be able to borrow money for low-income housing and infrastructure projects. By providing revolving credit to the urban poor, the UN-Habitat fund will fill in a gap: while multinational financial institutions loan money directly to central governments, smaller institutions like commercial banks do not loan money to the poor because the latter do not have security of tenure or a legal address based on home ownership.

For Discussion: One expert has argued that international aid is unable to improve cities and that slums are a manifestation of poor policies. How is human settlement shaped by economic forces? By unjust land-use policy? By war and other conflict? Are slums a manifestation of no policy?


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