African Cities at Bursting Point

By Nevin, Tom | African Business, February 1997 | Go to article overview
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African Cities at Bursting Point


Nevin, Tom, African Business


Populations in African cities are exploding faster than on any other continent. In another 20 years, Lagos, for example, will be the most populated city in the world with over 20m inhabitants. But, while populations are increasing, the ability of cities to cope is diminishing. A catastrophic social crisis is looming. Tom Nevin reports.

Africa's population will continue to increase at a faster rate than any other region in the next 30 years. In that time its population will double to just under 1.5bn people.

A study prepared by the UN - The State of World Population - says that Africa will see an average population growth of 2.7% against a world increase of 1.5% and just 0.3% in developed countries. The continent's 2.7% increase compares with Europe's 0.1%, North America's 0.9%, Asia at 1.5% and Latin America at 1.7%

The report notes that cities in Africa are growing faster than in any other region. Most of the increase is the result of migration, reflecting hopes of escaping rural privation, more than the existence of actual opportunities in the cities.

"In fact," the report reveals, "under the burden of structural adjustment programmes, formal employment in Africa's cities is not growing, while informal sector job availability is not likely to keep pace with the 5% to 10% anticipated growth rates in working-age population."

The quality of life in many African cities is increasingly threatened, it says, and urban infrastructures are already under great stress. "Shrinking budgets for social services have left schools overcrowded and ill-equipped, medical services understocked and overburdened, transport less reliable and basic electrical and water supplies increasingly intermittent."

Economic pressures and rising school fees, have reversed trends towards higher enrollments for basic education.

The most important African cities, says the study, were developed as colonial trading and administration centres, rather than industrial and commercial centres equipped to handle large populations. "A generation after independence, well-serviced but expensive city cores are surrounded by rings of development supporting most of the population, where the quality of housing varies greatly. Urban authorities providing administration and services have been unable to keep up with the explosive growth of squatter communities and shanty towns."

Slow economic growth and poor transport have limited the relocation of industry and industrial suppliers, impeding job growth in secondary cities. This has fuelled continued migration into larger cities by people in search of work. The Nigerian city of Lagos is a case in point. In 1950 it was a colonial administrative and trading centre. By 1990 it had ballooned to nearly 8m inhabitants and in 20 years it will be the world's largest city crammed with more than 24m people. Only Tokyo with 29m and Bombay with 27m will be more populous. In contrast, London, the world's second most heavily-populated city in 1950, will not be among the first 30 in 2015.

Decentralisation of authority has accelerated change in the management of basic services, but public and private initiatives alike are hampered by "haphazard tax collection and poorly functioning credit markets." As employment stagnates and services deteriorate in many urban areas, social and economic conditions continue to worsen. "As a result, crime and homelessness increase and family systems break down, especially under the added strains of political turmoil and the ravages of AIDS.

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