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Next year, for the first time in history, more than half of the world's people will be living in towns and cities. By 2030 the urban population is expected to reach almost five billion—60% of humanity—a new report says.says.
Most of the growth will be in poor countries and among poor people, setting challenges for local authorities to provide adequate health, sanitation, and services ahead of the expected influx.
Speaking in London last week at the launch of the latest world population report, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, warned, “Within a single generation the urban population in Africa and Asia is set to double.”
Between 2000 and 2030 Asia's urban population will grow from 1.4 to 2.6 billion, Africa's from almost 300 to 740 million, and that of Latin America and the Caribbean from almost 400 to more than 600 million. Globally, all future population growth will be in cities, and almost all in today's developing countries.
“What happens in the cities of Africa and Asia and other regions will shape our common future . . . We must abandon a mindset that resists urbanisation and act now to begin a concerted global effort to help cities unleash their potential to spur economic growth and solve social problems,” said Ms Obaid.
“The battle for the millennium development goals to halve extreme poverty by 2015 will be won or lost in the cities of the developing world. This means accepting the rights of poor people to live in cities and working with their creativity to tackle potential problems and generate new solutions.”
She says that the best way to tackle urban population growth is through “investments in education and health, including reproductive health and voluntary family planning, and the empowerment of women.”
The report says that although urbanisation is “inevitable” and often regarded as negative, it also offers advantages.
“The current concentration of poverty, slum growth, and social disruption in cities does paint a threatening picture. Yet no country in the industrial age has ever achieved significant economic growth without urbanisation. Cities concentrate poverty, but they also represent the best hope of escaping it . . . The potential benefits of urbanisation far outweigh the disadvantages. The challenge is in learning how to exploit its possibilities.”
The report's author, George Martin, told the BMJ that the growth of overcrowded urban slums presents very real threats from communicable diseases: “The main problems come from lack of sanitation, water, and basic services, which need to be planned for ahead. If you let slums grow spontaneously it is much more difficult to subsequently put in a sewer or water pipe amid the maze of unplanned housing.”
Dr Martin noted, “Despite the potential advantages in terms of cost and economies of scale in delivering services to city dwellers, the urban poor often have worse health and nutritional outcomes than those in rural areas.” However, “with a little forethought and investment, the lives of the urban poor could be transformed.”
The State of World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth is available at www.unfpa.org.