City numbers in Africa and Asia set to double by 2030

Posted: 28 June 2007

Author: John Rowley

Humanity will have to undergo a "revolution in thinking" in order to deal with the doubling of urban populations in Africa and Asia by 2030, the United Nations warns in a report which shows that over 30 years, the population of African and Asian cities will double, adding 1.7 billion people , or more than the present populations of China and the United States put together.

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Overall, the cities of the developing world are expected to add as many urban dwellers in the first four decades in the 21st century as the whole world added in the last century - or more than 1.84 billion. Some 93 per cent of the world's population growth is expected to taking place in these cities.

Between 2000 and 2030 the population in towns and cities will increase from 1.4 billion to 2.6 billion, Africa's from 294 million to 742 million, and those in Latin America and the Caribbean from 394 million to 609 million, says the report.

Unlike the popular conception, most of this growth will be in smaller cities of less than half a million, not in the so-called mega-cities of 10 million or more. And this, says the report, causes a problem since these smaller settlements usually receive less attention and have weaker city governments than the large ones.

"What happens in the cities of Africa and Asia and other regions will shape our common future," said the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid.

Speaking at the launch of the latest State of the World Population 2007 report, in London, she said: "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."

To take advantage of potential opportunities provided by the growth of cities, large and small, governments must prepare for the coming growth, she said. "If they wait, it will be too late.This wave of urbanisation is without precedent. The changes are too large and too fast to allow planners and policymakers simply to react. In Africa and Asia, the number of people living in cities increases by approximately 1 million, on average, each week. Leaders need to be proactive and take far-sighted action to fully exploit the opportunities that urbanisation offers."

Big shift

According to the report, next year (2008) will see more than half the world's current 6.7 billion people living in cities. Though the mega-cities will continue to grow, most people will be living in cities of 500,000 or fewer.

By 2030, the urban population will rise to 5 billion, or 60 per cent of world population. Globally, all future population growth will take place in cities, nearly all of it in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In Asia and Africa, this marks a decisive shift from rural to urban growth, changing a balance that has lasted for millennia.

Urbanisation - the rise in the urban share of total population - is inevitable, says the report, and could be considered a positive development. No country in the industrial age has achieved significant economic growth without it.

The State of World Population 2007 reports that, although most new urban dwellers will be poor, they must be part of the solution. Assisting them to meet their needs - for housing, health care, education and employment - could also unleash their potential to power economic growth.

Traffic in Mumbai
Traffic in Mumbai
Traffic dodges a cow in Mumbai, India. Photo © Martin Roemers/Panos Pictures
"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," says Ms. Obaid. "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."

Natural increase

Most urban growth results from natural increase rather than migration, says the report, but government response to this growth has often been to try to discourage, prevent or even reverse migration. despite the fact that migration can actually be beneficial. It is a failed policy, one that has resulted in less housing for the poor and increased slum growth. It also limits opportunities for the urban poor to improve their lives and to contribute fully to their communities and neighbourhoods.

It instances the case of China and Vietnam, where strict controls on city migration were lifted from 1978 and 1986 respectively, leading to a sharp drop in poverty in both cases.

According to the report, city authorities and urban planners should make it a priority to provide for the shelter needs of the urban poor. They should offer the poor secure tenure on land that is outfitted with power, water and sanitation services. Those living in poor communities should have access to education and health care and should be encouraged to build their own homes.

Because most urban growth results from natural increase, to reduce the pace of growth, policymakers should support interventions which reduce poverty, empower women, promote education - particularly of women and girls - and improe health, including reproductive health and family planning services.

Urban population by region, 1950-2030. To enlarge, click on image.
The UNFPA report points our that half of the urban population is under the age of 25. And in a supplement to the report it highlights the special needs of young people - for education and health care, for protection from violence, for employment and for integration into the wider society. Meeting these needs will help many escape their own impoverished upbringing.

Three initiatives in the reporrt stand out:

  • Accept the right of poor people to the city, abandoning attempts to discourage migration and prevent urban growth. City authorities should work closely with organizations of the urban poor, including women's organisations.

  • Adopt a broad and long-term vision of the use of urban space. This means, among other things, providing minimally serviced land for housing and planning in advance to promote sustainable land use both within cities and in the surrounding areas.

  • Begin a concerted international effort to support strategies for the urban future.

Environmental impacts

Commenting on the sustainability of the projected city growth, the report says it is ironic that the battle to save the world's remaining healthy ecosystems will be won not in the tropical forestsa or the coral reefs that are threatened, but "on the streets of the most unnatural landscapes on the planet."

It says that urban concentrations need not aggravate environmental problems, which result from unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and inadequate urban management. But it warns that the impact of rising demand on urban water supplies is likely to be dramatic, with drier regions such as Karachi and New Delhi particularly hard hit.

It also warns that the impact of drought, flooding and sea rise caused by climate change and changes in land use will have a disproportionate affect on poor people in slum settlements.

The report says a broader vision and more integrated responses will be needed to meet such changes.

The full report, with pictures, charts and many case studies is available from UNFPA. See UNFPA State of World Population 2007