Cities: Residents to the Rescue

Article excerpt

In the next ten years, the number of people living in cities will rise to around 3.3 billion. Tokyo already has a population of 27 million, Sao Paulo (Brazil) 16.4 million, and Bombay 15 million. World Bank forecasts show as much as 80 per cent of the developing countries' economic growth occurring in the cities and major conurbations.

There are both positive and negative aspects to these developments. As the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) points out in a recent study on Innovative policies for sustainable urban development, "At each stage in the history of urbanisation, environmental conditions in cities were improved dramatically. The process was often slow, but over time, many epidemic diseases have been controlled, the supply of clean water and the removal of wastes have become routine, the risks of fire have been contained, and standards of comfort and cleanliness have risen to unprecedented levels. Cities could not have become as large and as numerous as they are now if environmental conditions had remained unchanged."

In a curious way, the pollution that cities suffer is largely due to their wealth. The rich consume a great deal more energy, water, building materials and other goods than the poor, and thus produce much more waste. This is what is happening, for example, in the cities in south-east Asia and Latin America where rapid industrialization is taking place - only the rich enjoy the benefits of piped water and refuse collection.

INCREASINGLY INSANITARY CONDITIONS

There is another, often tragic, aspect to this situation. The poorest of the poor are reduced to living in outer-edge shantytowns in extremely insanitary conditions and, lacking the resources to deal with the problem, the city as a whole has to endure congestion and air and water pollution. In Africa, where some towns and cities are expanding at a rate of over 7 per cent a year, municipal sanitation departments are no longer able to cope, and it is estimated that as many as 30 per cent of the population are without running water.

According to a remarkable report that was published recently(1), in many of the world's major cities runaway population growth, an epidemic of Aids and rising social tensions have been combined in the last few years with a steep drop in incomes. The population living on the outer edges of the cities continues to grow apace, hundreds of thousands of people are without running water and 15 per cent of them without sanitation of any sort.

Various voluntary bodies and non-governmental organizations have got together, often successfully, to work out solutions. In Abidjan, an original refuse-collection scheme has resulted in the seashore being cleared of rubbish and has also given regular employment to hundreds of people. Similar schemes have been initiated in Nairobi, Accra and Ndola (Zambia), where small-scale enterprises producing bricks have been set up, thus not only providing their employees with an income but turning out a cheap, good-quality building material. Another example of "informal" employment cited in the same report concerns a refuse recycling project in Hanoi (Viet Nam), collecting and cleaning chicken bones which end up in Italian pharmacies as calcium supplements sold at high prices. The problem is, however, that these informal activities are much less well paid than "traditional" jobs. In the thirteen countries studied in the report, the average income in the parallel economy was well below the official poverty line.

WATER AND THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS

One key problem concerns the availability of clean water. Some progress has been achieved as a result of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, but in 1994 at least 220 million people still lacked a source of drinking water near their homes. In some cases, communities of 500 or more inhabitants are served by a single tap. In some towns, communal taps function for only a few hours a day, so that people cannot build up sufficient reserves of water for their personal needs if it takes too long to fetch or if the water has to be carried long distances. …