Urbanization is on the rise. About half of the world’s population lives in cities: 3 billion, compared to 1.5 billion 30 years ago. 41% of Africa’s population lives in urban areas (source). 6 out of 10 people will live in cities by 2030.
Two hundred years ago, Peking was the only city in the world with a population of a million. Today, almost 500 cities are that big, and many are much bigger. As recently as 1990 the United States had the world’s highest number of one million plus inhabitant urban agglomerations with a total of 33. By the year 2020 China will lead the world with 121 followed by India with 58.
The half of the world’s population that lives in cities occupies only approximately 2.7% of the world’s land area.
Lagos and Cairo are Africa’s largest cities. A third of Africa’s 1 billion inhabitants currently live in urban areas. Similar data for the world are here.
Many of the city dwellers, especially in the Third World, live in slum conditions. In fact, almost 1 billion people live in slums. That’s one third of global city dwellers in developing countries. Of Africa’s 1 billion city dwellers, 70% live in slum conditions. The share of urban residents in the developing world living in slums has declined from 39 per cent in 2000 to 33 per cent in 2012.
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The UN estimates that the number of people living in slums passed 1 billion in 2007 and could reach 1.39 billion in 2020, although there are large variations among regions. In Asia and the Pacific, two out of five urban dwellers live in slums, compared with three out of five in Africa.
In percentage terms, sub-Saharan Africa has about 72 percent of city dwellers living in slums. Asia has by far the highest number of city dwellers living in slums – the problem is worst in South Asia, where half of the urban population is composed of slum dwellers. The figure below illustrates the share of slum population in some Asian and Pacific countries. In 2001, Afghanistan had as much as 99 per cent of the urban population living in slums while Nepal and Bangladesh also had high proportions-92 and 85 per cent, respectively, although they have had some success in containing the problem since 1990. (source)
(source, click image to enlarge)
In most parts of the world, the proportion of urban populations living in slums has gone down:
The proportion of the world’s urban population living in slums has fallen from nearly 40% a decade ago to less than a third today. China and India have together lifted 125m people out of slum conditions in recent years. North Africa’s slum population has shrunk by a fifth. (source)
At the same time, the absolute number of slum dwellers around the world is still rising.
From a human rights perspective, slums pose a variety of problems: they are an indicator of poverty, and the rights to housing and healthcare (art. 25 of the Universal Declaration) are only the most obvious rights that are less than perfectly protected in slums. We can all imagine how the rights to education, standard of living, privacy, property etc. are violated as well in slum conditions. Bad housing is a cause of bad health (due to the absence of sanitation), of a lack of education (due to a lack of electricity and light), a lack of security (because of the risk of fire and burglary) and it therefore perpetuates poverty.
Typical slum problems such as bad sanitation, lack of clean water and disease are caused by a combination of overpopulation and insufficient government investments. Poor hygiene causes debilitating illnesses to propagate. Toilets and taps are shared.
However, slums may be bad, but at the same time comparatively better. The World Bank, in its latest World Development Report, states that cities in the Third World grow so fast because they create economic opportunities and possibilities. Wages of people in cities are much higher than the wages of their unskilled rural compatriots.
Cities are created by trade and industry. Factories cluster together and create cities because they profit from a concentration of skills and from the infrastructure (housing, transport, ports etc.) that cities offer. Consumers also profit from the presence of different traders and service providers in a relatively small space that is a city. And, finally, businesses that specializes in services for businesses – banks, insurance … – cluster where their customers are. So slums may be a ghastly sight, but we shouldn’t forget that the country side is often in a much worse albeit not so visible predicament.