Nearly 80 per cent of world's urban poorest live in slums

Posted: 6 October 2003

Over 900 million people - almost one in three of the world's urban population - are slum dwellers, and in 30 years' time that number is likely to double to 2 billion, unless serious action is taken, according to UN-Habitat's new report The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003.

The report's figures for the developing world are even starker: 43 per cent of the urban population of all developing countries combined live in slums, and over 78 per cent of the urban population in the Least Developed Countries live in slums.

Comprising the largest study ever made of global urban conditions, the report says that unprecedented urban growth in the face of increasing poverty and social inequality, and a predicted increase in the number of people living in slums (to about 2 billion by 2030), mean that the UN Millennium Development goal to improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020 should be considered the absolute minimum that the international community should aim for.

In sub-Saharan Africa the proportion of urban residents in slums is highest at 71.9 per cent, according to the report. Oceania had the lowest at 24.1 per cent. South-central Asia accounted for 58 per cent, east Asia for 36.4 per cent, western Asia for 33.1 per cent, Latin America and the Caribbean for 31.9 per cent, north Africa for 28.2 per cent and southeast Asia for 28 per cent. Although the concentration of slum dwellers is highest in African cities, in numbers alone, Asia accounts for some 60 per cent of the world's urban slum residents.


Slum development is fuelled by a combination of rapid rural-to-urban migration, spiralling urban poverty, the inability of the urban poor to access affordable land for housing and insecure land tenure.

More than half of the 29 case study cities covered in the UN-Habitat report indicate that slum formation will continue throughout Africa, and in many parts of the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. The report says some slums are now as large as cities. The Kibera district of Nairobi now has 400,000 people. The Dharavi area of Mumbai and the Orangi district of Karachi also house hundreds of thousands of households. The Ashaiman settlement in Ghana is now larger than the city of Tema from which it grew.

Kibera, Nairobi, the world's biggest slum. Credit: UNEP
The report's major concern is the growing challenge presented by this crisis. The world's rural population has reached its peak, and almost all further population growth will be absorbed by urban settlements - a critical situation recognised by very few governments, cities and other agencies. The authors predict that three-quarters of the world's anticipated population growth in the next 30 years will take place in relatively small cities with populations of between 1 and 5 million.

The report says that slums are largely a physical manifestation of urban poverty and identifies women, children, widows, and female-headed households as the most vulnerable groups among the poor. Where housing is sub-standard, such as in slums and informal urban settlements, it is they who suffer most from environmental degradation and lack of essential services.

Women in slums

Especially important is the large number of women-headed households found in urban areas, mainly in slums. In urban African slums, for example, women head over 30 per cent or more of all households.

Despite this emphasis on women's problems and frequent mention of the high natural growth rate in slum areas, a curious feature of the 300-page report is the lack of any reference to slum-dwellers' access to fertility control or reproductive health services. For reasons that one can only speculate on, the report thus entirely overlooks a vital paragraph (136) of the Habitat Agenda:"Develop and implement programmes to ensure universal access for women throughout their life-span to a full range of affordable health-care services, including those related to reproductive health care, which includes family planning and sexual health..."

The report concludes with case studies of 29 cities worldwide, from Abidjan to Sydney, and a wealth of data tables of regional, national and city indicators.

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