Africa’s Rapid Urbanisation – Magnet of Hope or Misery Time Bomb?

Human Wrongs Watch

By Francis Owusu* Think Africa Press 

An important dimension of Africa’s demographic change is rapid urbanisation. The problem of urbanisation in Africa, however, is not merely the number of urban residents. Compared to other regions, Africa still has one of the lowest levels of urbanisation in the world.

Lagos population has doubled in a decade

According to UN estimates only 40% of the region’s population lived in urban areas in 2010, compared to about 50% globally.

The concern over Africa’s urbanisation, rather, is with its speed: while the roughly 3.3 billion worldwide urban resident population is projected to double by 2050, Africa’s 373 million urban resident population is expected to more than double by as early as 2030.

Over 12 Million in Lagos

It is important to note, however, that there are significant differences in the levels of urbanisation within the continent.

Coastal western Africa and southern Africa have the most developed urban hierarchy, while eastern Africa is the least urbanised. The East Africa region, however, currently has the world’s shortest projected urban population doubling time of less than nine years.

The situation is even more critical when we look at numbers of residents and the growth rates of specific African cities. The 2010 population of Lagos Metropolitan Area, for instance, was estimated to be over 12 million, and Kinshasa-Brazzaville was 10.5 million. Conakry and Luanda have both recently doubled their populations within a decade.

The “Push” Factors and the “Pull” Factors

Another notable aspect of urbanisation in Africa is that it has not been accompanied by improvements in basic living standards.

Unlike in some of the other regions, Africa’s urbanisation is driven by the “push” factors of environmental overload and degradation, resource scarcity and conflict in rural areas, rather than “pull” factors that result from economic opportunities in the cities.

The region has experienced little or no industrial growth to support this rapid growth of cities, and many African cities are imploding due to infrastructure overload. African urbanisation thus runs counter to the general theory that urbanisation provides greater access to jobs, basic services, and social safety nets.

These urbanisation trends in Africa have several implications for the region’s development aspirations and use of its resources:

1. Making a living in African cities

A lack of economic opportunities compels Africa’s urban residents towards an array of creative, innovative and inventive strategies to make a living.

The Big Informal Sector

The informal sector absorbs over 60% of the urban labour force in some African countries, with women forming a large majority of proprietors. Its continuing growth can be attributed to the decline in formal sector employment, the manufacturing sector, and private sector formal employment.

While the informal sector has always been part of the urban economy in Africa, many urban residents are now involved in “multiple livelihood strategies”, as people are compelled to employ diversified means of income generation through the acquisition of additional jobs.

This practice is not only limited to those in the informal sector, but also by those sections of the population dependent on fixed wages. As a result, the informal sector is no longer the preserve of the poor, but also includes professionals, administrators and other highly ranked formal sector employees.

Another activity that many urban residents, including the poor and slum residents, engage in is urban agriculture. Over a third of Kampalans, for instance, now claim to practice it.

2. Difficulty of providing infrastructure

The chaotic expansion of urban spaces in Africa limits the ability of national and local governments to provide urban security and to supply a basic social infrastructure in areas such as health, education, water, and sewage disposal facilities.

As a result slums or shanty towns grow, overcoming and swallowing what little crumbling infrastructure that already exists. Many African city dwellers do not have access to electricity or potable water.

Waste disposal presents a tremendous health hazard, and indoor air pollution, poor nutrition and urban crime all pose further threats.

Slums face additional environmental challenges due to the low quality of construction materials and location on marginal ground. Many slums also flood routinely, and are vulnerable to accidental or malicious fires. The emerging threat of climate change is only likely to intensify these problems.

3. Slum growth

Slums are becoming the norm in the urbanisation of Africa. Nairobi’s slums, for instance, account for about a quarter of the city’s estimated total population of around 3 million.

Poverty, deprivation, crime, violence and general human insecurity have become more prevalent. The infectious diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and diarrhoea. In some African cities, slums emerge due to the lack ownership of land, while inappropriate zoning laws and building codes seem to be the culprits in others.

4. Disease

Urbanisation generally has positive effects on overall human health. African cities, however, have mixed effects on the spread of diseases. On the one hand, urban areas in Africa have better health status because of the availability of healthcare facilities and lower malaria infection rates, due in part to the availability of bed-nets.

On the other hand, HIV infection rates are generally higher in urban areas and especially high in slums, where sexual coercion and violence against women accelerate its spread.

5. Urban environmental problems

As African cities become overcrowded, the pollution of the urban environment exacerbates environmental disasters and contributes to health problems. Heavy traffic and emissions are the cause of respiratory problems, heavy noise pollution, road accidents and stressful journeys, as well as other urban nuisances.

Industrial and residential emissions, domestic wood and coal fire emissions, crude dumping of solid waste and improper landfills, sewers, septic or fuel tank leakages and water effluents all contribute to the degradation of environmental health in already overcrowded cities.

Food and other contaminants, as well as communicable diseases – cholera, malaria, and diarrhoea, amongst others – also threaten the life and health of urban dwellers. These areas are also more vulnerable to health hazards like natural disasters.

Hope or Poverty, Disease…?

Can Africa’s rapidly urbanising cities become magnets of hope, and engines of growth and social transformation? Or will they become centres of poverty, disease, and environmental time bombs with disillusioned residents?

Africa is urbanising rapidly, but its large cities do not represent a crisis or tragedy. Urbanisation leads to economies of scale in the provision of water, health, education, electricity and other services. Industries benefit from the concentration of suppliers and consumers, which allows savings in communication and transport costs.

Cities also provide big, differentiated labour markets, help to generate new ideas, and accelerate the pace of development of technological innovation and dissemination. Indeed, the countries with the fastest rate of urbanisation are those with the best economic performance.

infrastructure Needed

Planning for urban growth in Africa requires national and local governments to anticipate urban growth, rather than simply reacting to the challenge posed. Urban planning in Africa should not only be inclusive and pro-poor, but must also find ways to improve the living conditions of current slum dwellers and to provide adequate alternatives to new slum formation.

There is also the need for improvements in public transportation, access to services such as water and electricity, and the government’s capacity to attract foreign investment to help unleash this potential. Sub-Saharan Africa’s hope for economic and social transformation cannot be realised without the cities leading such efforts.

*Francis Owusu is Associate Professor of Community and Regional Planning, Iowa State University, and editorial board member of PlacesOnLine, a project of the Association of American Geographers. This article was first published by Think Africa Press

2011 Human Wrongs Watch

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