Technology 'can reduce problems of urbanisation'

The number of city dwellers is on the rise in Africa and Asia
Date: 
June 04, 2011
By: 
Priya Shetty
A slum in Quito

Growing urbanisation does not have to spell disaster for either human health or the environment, and both research and underused technologies can help mitigate its negative effects, a conference has heard.

Developing nations must accept that urbanisation is inevitable, and invest in research and infrastructure to support their growing populations, Cecilia Tacoli, a researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), told delegates at the Population Footprints conference in London last week.

The conference, organized by University College London and the Leverhulme Trust, both based in United Kingdom, looked at the effects of population growth and dynamics on health and climate change.

Much of the world's population growth will be in cities in Asia and Africa, whose urban populations are set to double between 2000-2030 to 3.4 billion, according to the 2007 UN Population Fund's report 'State of World Population: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth'.

Yet developing countries refuse to engage with the process of urbanization and keep passing policies that hamper migration to cities, Tacoli told SciDev.Net. Their urban infrastructure is therefore poorly equipped to provide basic services such as healthcare, food, water and fuel.

Much of the resistance to urbanisation stems from concern that growing cities will consume vast resources and damage the environment.

But this is misguided, according to a paper by IIED researcher David Satterthwaite, published this month in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. He said that existing technologies can ensure that urbanisation "combines high living standards with relatively low greenhouse gas emissions and lower resource demands".

Satterthwaite cites Porto Alegre in Brazil, which "provides good water, sanitation, drainage, schools", as an example of how innovative governments and a strong community can make this possible.

Better-managed cities could bring both environmental and health benefits, experts said at the conference. Indrajit Hazarika of the Indian Institute of Public Health, in New Delhi, said: "In most developing countries, while the public health system in rural areas continues to be crippled, urban areas benefit from a higher concentration of health workers and facilities."

But many poor migrants on the outskirts of cities do not see these benefits, according to Tacoli. "Data on health indicators within cities show huge disparities, and those who suffer most are people who live in informal settlements, with bad or non-existent infrastructure," she said.

Decentralising urban healthcare could help, but requires innovative research on healthcare delivery, said Hazarika, adding that efficient use of resources is fundamental to addressing energy and environmental concerns.

Peter Williams of ARCHIVE, a non-governmental organization that promotes healthy housing, said that eco-friendly technologies in housing and service provision could mitigate the environmental effects of overcrowding, but only if the solutions are designed with the local people from the start.