Positive Environment News

FEATURE - Urban jungles to test UN resolve at summit

Date: 01-Aug-02
Author: Dean Yates

Adin earns $2 a day from local authorities in the Indonesian capital Jakarta sorting through the tangle of plastic bottles, used aerosol cans and coconut husks.

Each month a crane lifts the rubbish to the bank, where it is burned.

"How can anyone do something like this? But I need the money," 50-year-old Adin said listlessly while taking a break as children played near a row of wooden shanties that line the filthy canal.

Scenes like this play out each day around the developing world in urban jungles such as Jakarta, under-scoring the health, environmental and social woes of life in megacities which the U.N. hopes to tackle at its environment summit in Johannesburg in August.

Megacities, defined as those with more than 10 million people, place immense strain on local governments and the millions who flock from rural areas seeking jobs and then have to fend off sickness, crime, unemployment and often communal unrest.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg - dubbed Earth Summit 2 - is being billed as the largest U.N. conference ever, where delegates are expected to work on a plan to drag millions out of poverty while protecting the environment.

But with the summit to open in less than a month, governments have yet to reach agreement on an action plan, causing environmental groups to predict the conference will flop.

Of course, for the tiny number of mega-rich in giant cities in the developing world, and the growing middle class, life beyond traffic jams and pollution offers opportunities their parents never had: cinemas, restaurants and travel.

But for many more megacity residents, life can be rough.

Indeed, Toshi Noda, UN-Habitat director for Asia and the Pacific, said slum dwellers comprised more than 50 percent of the population in megacities in developing countries.


Take Calcutta. From 15 million people today, the Indian city is projected to have 22 million within its outer limits by 2025.

"Calcutta will become a huge expanse of degraded human settlement...," said Monideep Chattopadhyay of the Centre for Human Settlements Planning at Calcutta's Jadavpur University.

"It's a doomsday scenario."

UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency that deals with urbanisation, projects the world will have 21 megacities in 2015 from only five in 1975 and 17 last year. Previous estimates have shown more by 2015, with some forecasting up to 27 by that time.

The vast majority of the megacities will be in the developing world, with more than half in Asia.

By 2015, cities like Bangladesh's capital Dhaka will need to cope with 22.8 million people, Sao Paulo in Brazil 21.2 million and Jakarta 17.3 million, according to the UN-Habitat figures.

The U.N. hopes the Johannesburg summit can make a difference, but independent experts believe it will have its work cut out.


Finding the funds and political will to take action will test local authorities. But where governments were failing to deliver, experts said citizens' groups were stepping in, influencing decisions and playing a key role in improving living conditions.

World leaders at Johannnesburg are expected to pledge to "significantly improve" by 2020 the lives of 100 million of the world's slum dwellers. Part of that involves boosting access to clean water, modern energy, land and basic services.

Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said while there were signs of hope to improve life in megacities, the challenges were "overwhelming".

"It may take decades to bring about more fundamental change in energy, infrastructure, urban settlements, transport systems, consumer technologies, and particularly, lifestyles," he said a speech last May in the Chinese megacity of Shanghai.

Speaking from his office in Japan, UN-Habitat's Noda said megacities should be viewed more positively than negatively, partly because they were vital to reducing pove

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