without slums

Anna Tibaijuka
calls for more ambitious strategies for improving the lives of slum dwellers and forestalling the development of new slums

One billion people around the world now live in city slums and their numbers are set to double over the next 25 years. But slums are no more inevitable than they are acceptable. While it may be difficult to overcome relative poverty, it is perfectly possible to ensure that the poor are provided with adequate shelter and basic services.

The history of cities in the developed world proves the point. During the nineteenth century urban centers all over Europe and America exploded into major metropolitan areas. London went from a population of 800,000 in 1800 to over 6.5 million in 1900. Paris grew from 500,000 to over 3 million. And by 1900, the population of New York was 4.2 million.

The urban poor in all these cities lived in appalling conditions. With the advent of the mass media, their cause was taken up by many illustrious journalists and authors – such as Dickens, Mayhew and Zola – who engaged politicians and professionals to help change the policies of their time.

Demographic shift
Now, over a hundred years later, some 50 per cent of the world’s population live in urban areas. Europe, North and South America and the Caribbean have stabilized with about 75 per cent of their populations living in cities and towns – but UN-HABITAT’s projections expect the still predominantly rural Africa and Asia to go through a major demographic shift. One third of the 3 billion inhabitants of the world’s cities and towns, are now slum dwellers. And if present trends continue, there will be 2 billion of them by 2030.

The Commission for Africa report, Our Common Interest – for which I was one of seventeen commissioners – recently highlighted urbanization as the second most important challenge facing Africans, after the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The reasons are obvious enough. Africa is expected to stop being a rural continent by 2030, with an estimated 51 per cent of its people living in urban areas. Already a staggering 71 per cent of the urban population in Africa lives in slums – so business as usual is a recipe for long-term disaster and conflict.

Life expectancy
Global intra-city statistics clearly show that slums are amongst the world’s most dangerous places to live. Their people are victims of crime and violence, and suffer a greater incidence of disease. Child mortality is much higher than elsewhere, life expectancy is much lower, and slums are fast becoming breeding grounds for AIDS. In Nairobi – where over 60 per cent of the urban population live on 5 per cent of the land – 150 out of every 1,000 children die under the age of five, compared to 83.9 deaths per 1,000 children in the formal areas of the city and 113 in rural areas.

The Millennium Declaration set a target under the Millennium Development Goals, calling for the improvement of the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020. The international community has recognized the urgent need for environmentally and socially sustainable cities. Indeed, in 2002, the General Assembly promoted UNHABITAT into a fully fledged United Nations Programme on Human Settlements to help the international community meet the challenge of urbanization. The problems of the built up environment are now considered a major priority, and for some time, UN-HABITAT has been working with all Habitat Agenda partners – such as governments, local authorities, non-governmental organisations, the private sector, community groups and other UN agencies, especially UNEP – to improve the environmental sustainability of cities and ensure that the poor are given a right to the city.

At the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, stated that “Poverty is the greatest polluter of them all”. Today, as the urbanization of poverty becomes a stark reality, it has become increasingly important to target the urban poor.

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit was one of the first to recognize that international targets for the natural environment would not be met without working at the local level. The inception of Localising Agenda 21 was a good basis for the long term cooperation between UN-HABITAT and UNEP. Under it, much has been achieved in cities around the world to ensure that the capacity of local authorities in managing the urban environment is improved.

Take Nakuru, in Kenya, which was in danger of destroying the natural habitat of pink flamingos at its famous lake. After a decade of work with the local authority, it is the first city in the region to have developed a comprehensive urban development plan. The process of industrialization has been rationalized and the effect of pollutants minimized. This integrated approach also has taken into account the living conditions of the urban poor living in slums along the lake’s shore: their participation and inclusion has helped reduce the dangerous proliferation of sewage and solid waste – and includes long term strategies of slum upgrading.

The partnership between UN-HABITAT and UNEP includes such programmes as Sustainable Cities and Managing Water for African Cities. The Sustainable Cities programme, which works around the world, aims to overcome the traditional operational boundaries that have hampered successful environmental planning and implementation.

Starting with consulting all stakeholders – from private businesses to street sellers, from government agencies to non-governmental organizations, from middle-class house owners to slum dwellers – it establishes priorities to turn round the management of a city. Sustainable Cities projects have turned chaotic cities like Dar es Salaam into vibrant well-managed economic hubs that run on private-public partnerships; this project was so successful that the programme is now being implemented in all Tanzanian cities and towns. It has also formed the basis of subsequent interventions in slum upgrading.

Managing Water
Managing Water for African Cities – a comparatively recent joint initiative between UN-HABITAT and UNEP – is based on the premise that not enough attention is given to the problems of the urban poor in accessing clean water and sanitation. All too often traditional measurements confidently state that they have easy access to basic services – forgetting that each toilet is often used by 500 people or that water comes from burst pipes close to open sewers. UNHABITAT and UNEP established the programme as a direct follow-up to the 1997 Cape Town Declaration adopted by African Ministers wishing to address the growing water crisis in Africa, and it is now working in Abidjan, Accra, Addis Ababa, Dakar, Johannesburg, Lusaka and Nairobi. The programme is contributing to water sector reform in five of these cities: environmental action plans are helping to protect water resources in three of them; and, in six, awareness-raising campaigns are engaging high-level political support for water resource management and pro-poor investment.

With projects like this, UN-HABITAT, in partnership with UNEP, is hoping to help meet the Millennium Development Goals and to ensure that the urban poor are given a right to the city. However, the international community will have to direct much more attention at the problem of slums, if it is to be overcome. Indeed, UN-HABITAT argues that it is important to review the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on slums if the international community is to overcome poverty.

When the international community set target 11 of Goal 7 in 2000 at an absolute figure of 100 million slum dwellers, within the context of cities without slums, it was assumed that this – as approximately 10 per cent of the then slum population – would be appropriate. However, this modest figure failed to take into account the expected increase in slum dwellers which – according to UN-HABITAT’s report, The Slum Challenge – will lead to them totaling 1.6 billion in 2020. In other words, UN-HABITAT argues that if the MDG is to be effective, more must be done to forestall the future growth of slums. The international community must commit itself to support a range of activities, including: capacity building for integrated national urban development strategies; improving the performance of local governments in managing future urban growth and effectively carrying out land use planning; and mobilizing resources more effectively.

Even more critical is the urgent need to find new and innovative financing mechanisms that can capitalize domestic savings for bankable projects aimed at building affordable housing. A good example of this is UN-HABITAT’s Slum Upgrading Facility whose long term aim is to provide guarantee mechanisms to leverage private sector funds for slum upgrading projects and pro-poor investments.

Partnerships between UN agencies like the one between UNEP and UNHABITAT can go a long way to meeting the Millennium Development Goals; but there is still a need to find new and innovative ways of working together. The combined efforts of all Habitat Agenda partners, donors, governments, local authorities, the private sector, non-governmental organisations and other UN agencies, should make it possible to ensure that our children live in cities without slums – in a world of sustainable green cities

Anna Tibaijuka is the Executive Director of UN-HABITAT.

PHOTOGRAPH: Gautam Banerjee/Topfoto

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Challenges and Opportunity | Bridging the Water Gap | Golden Gateway to Green Cities | The Spirit of “Mottai Nai” | Cities without Slums | People | Rapid Progress | At a glance: Greening Cities | Charging into the Future | Star profile: Tokiko Kato | The Female Factor | Unlocking People Energy | Think Local | High Achievements | Life at the Top | Books and products | Focus On Your World | Black Sea, Green City?

Complementary issues:
Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka: The city century (Transport and Communications) 2001
Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka: Waterless cities (Freshwater) 2003
Issue on Human Settlements 1996
Jockin Arputham: Whose city is it anyway? (Poverty, Health and the Environment) 2001