Stephanie Nieuwoudt | Nairobi, Kenya
20 April 2007 01:18
This year marks the birth of a new "species": Homo urbanus. For the first time in history there will be as many city dwellers as rural inhabitants in the world.
The executive director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), Anna Tibaijuka, coined this term to describe the rise in city and, consequently, slum dwellers. She was speaking at the 21st session of the governing council of UN-Habitat, which ended on Friday in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
This is the year that sees the number of slum dwellers rise to one billion people -- a figure that could double in the next 13 years. In the Southern African state of Tanzania alone, the growth in the urban population is about 6% a year, which is twice the rate of the average growth rate of the population.
Tibaijuka told delegates at the 21st session that cities in the developing world will absorb 95% of urban growth in the next two decades. Much of this growth will happen in urban slums where the goal of achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is elusive.
A lack of sanitation, safe drinking water and health services will compound social insecurity and exacerbate the prevalence of maternal mortality (MDG 5) and the spread of illnesses such as respiratory problems, diarrhoea, malaria and HIV/Aids (the latter two fall under MDG 6). High child mortality rates (MDG 4) will also remain a huge problem.
Tibaijuka said there is a perception globally that slum dwellers do not have money. Yet, even if they are poor, they spend substantial sums on basic necessities. Slum dwellers pay four to 100 times more for water than affluent people do. For example, in Kenya water is sometimes obtained from portable sources such as water trucks.
These are government-owned vehicles driven by public servants who sell water to poorer communities. Or they belong to private entrepreneurs who get water from boreholes on their own land. There have also been cases in Kenya where water -- which is sold at inflated rates -- was obtained from contaminated sources, leading to diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid.
People living in slums also spend large amounts of money on housing. Especially in Africa, these dwellings are erected on public land that was grabbed by slumlords who then built makeshift accommodation.
A study by UN-Habitat showed that the costs of building shacks were, on average, recovered within nine months. Whatever the tenant pays thereafter is pure profit for the "owner", who has no title deeds and therefore no legal claim to the land and no right to rent out the shacks.
Tibaijuka said that many are "owned" by rich people living in plush estates and that it is unacceptable that they rent out dwellings without supplying water and sanitation facilities.
The swell of urban residents will also see the gender education gap widening, making it difficult to reach MDG 3, which focuses on promoting gender equality. Poor families find it difficult to generate funds to send children to school.
The UN-Habitat publication State of the World’s Cities Report 2006/7 states that in Uganda and Zambia 74% and 51%, respectively, of young women between the ages of 15 and 24 cited a lack of money as the main reason for dropping out of school. Girls in slum areas are also four times more at risk of contracting HIV.
Interestingly, the report does not show any clear pattern regarding the urban-rural divide and women-headed households. In Kenya, Malawi and Rwanda, these households are found mostly in the rural areas. In Burkina Faso, Chad, Central African Republic, Egypt and Tanzania, most women-headed households are found in urban slums.
Not all slums have the same degree of deprivation, but UN-Habitat found that slums in sub-Saharan Africa show the highest levels of deprivation. About 80% of the region’s slum households have one or two "shelter deprivations", while almost half of all households suffer from at least two deprivations.
"Shelter deprivations" are lack of water, lack of sanitation, overcrowding, non-durable housing structures and a lack of security of tenure.
While countries in North Africa has seen a declining trend in the number and proportion of slum dwellers, countries in sub-Saharan Africa have experienced average annual growth rates of 4,53% in urban slum populations.
This trend is partly attributed to the declining economies of some countries in the region, the high prevalence of HIV and conflicts.
According to the State of the World’s Cities Report, South Africa is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to have succeeded in "making good progress in basic service provision to the urban poor, which is reflected in low to almost stable slum growth over the last 14 years".
However, there are still more than eight million South Africans who lack adequate housing and basic services. -- IPS