With high population growth, Africa’s urban infrastructure under huge pressure

National representatives, local authorities and urbanists from across Africa are gathering in Nigeria for a key regional meeting in the run-up to the Habitat III conference.

ABUJA, Nigeria — Rapidly expanding populations in most African cities accompanied by slow economic growth rates are straining urban infrastructure, ?experts and stakeholders noted at the opening day of the Habitat III regional meeting for Africa on Wednesday.

With Africa accounting for about half of the the 900 million urban dwellers around the world, ?weak government policies have resulted in a continued rural-urban population drift.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of urbanization. What we should try to do is to ensure that we make policies that promote sustainable urbanization,” Oyebanji Oyeyinka, UN-Habitat’s regional director for Africa, said on the first day of the Africa regional meeting, which runs through Friday here.

“Sustainable urbanization simply means the kind of urbanization that takes care of tomorrow,” Oyeyinka said. “In other words, what we invest today will reflect in future generation. We do not, for instance, use up all the fossil fuels in a way that will cause high level pollution.”

When urbanization is done sustainably, Oyeyinka noted, it offers an opportunity to raise living standards ?of those in both urban and rural areas.

[See: The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum]

Although Africa is quickly urbanizing — with capital cities particularly drawing most migrants — the continent’s future will be linked to the ways cities will be governed and managed, said Jean Pierre Mbassi, secretary general of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) network in Africa.

“The challenge ahead is huge,” Mbassi said. “African city dwellers deserve the right to quality of life, the right to decent jobs, especially for the youth, the right to equality and empowerment, especially for women.”

The discussions that take place in Abuja will be poured into a Habitat III regional report for Africa. In turn, this key document will offer formal input to the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year global urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III. The first draft of the New Urban Agenda is due out in early May, while the Habitat III conference will take place in October in Quito, Ecuador.

High population growth

According to preliminary findings of that regional report, African countries are divided into three categories of urbanization ?patterns.

There are countries with high urbanization rates and large aggregate populations — for instance, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mali. Then there are those countries that have high urbanization rates but small aggregate populations, such as Rwanda and Burkina Faso. Finally, there are the countries that have low urbanization rates of below 1 percent, such as Egypt, Senegal, Tunisia, Sierra Leone and Niger.

That second category has drawn particular interest in the African context.

“Rapid urbanization in the second group will have a great impact at the regional and sub-regional level but less at the continental level,” said Takyiwaa Manuh, director of the Social Development Policy Division at the U.?N. Economic Commission for Africa, who presented the report.

“One of the things that is clear about urbanization in Africa is what is called ‘urban primacy’, when you have one large city, which is often the capital,” he said. “Look at a country like Rwanda, which has a low level of urbanization of 18 percent, but 48 percent of its urban population live in just one city, Kigali.”

[See: Finding a truly common vision for African cities]

Still, Africa have remained the least urbanized continent in the world,? despite having the fastest such growth rate. While southern Africa is the most urbanized sub-region, eastern Africa is the least.

Oyeyinka said being the least urbanized continent while having an exponential growth rate poses both a challenge and an opportunity.

“It’s a challenge because the growth rate puts a lot of pressure on infrastructure in urban areas, puts lots of pressure on investments that we need to make to counter the speed of urbanization,” he said. “It also creates a lot of human pressures that, if we don’t take account of, might? create a lot of problems for us in the future.”

Slum-free 2030

Foremost among these human pressures is the dearth of adequate affordable housing for the ?population in urban areas.

Africa has a deficit of affordable housing of over four million per year, Oyeyinka said. The informal nature of the growth in urban areas had led to a proliferation of informal settlements, where some 60 percent of Africa’s population lives today.

The rise in slum dwellers in some parts of Africa has been attributed to the absence of sustainable development policies. Ghana’s slum dwellers, for instance, rose from 4.9 million in 2010 to about 5.2 million in 2014.

[See: Achieving inclusiveness: The challenge and potential of informal settlements]

Getting rid of slums in urban areas continues to be a challenge for African leaders, as governments struggle with policies that would either tolerate or obliterate them.

For instance, Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall has announced that slums would be eliminated from the city by 2017. While a laudable goal, some critical questions remain: Do we need slums? Is it even possible to have an African city without a slum?

For the UN-Habitat leadership, the answer to these questions is clear.

“We believe that we should get rid of slums,” said Oyeyinka. “In fact, our vision is to build cities without slums in Africa.”

How could this vision become reality? Oyeyinka said it it would have to take place step by step — but noted also that the long-term opportunity was fairly easy to see.

“Tokyo used to have slums — in fact, a huge chunk of Tokyo was slum. London used to have its own slums, in the days of Charles Dickens. Paris used to have slums,” he said. “So there is no reason why we shouldn’t get rid of slums and why we shouldn’t have a vision of a city without slums in the next 20 years.

[See: In informal settlements of Nairobi, women look to Habitat III on inclusive planning]

“In fact”, he continued, “I believe that by 2030, we should enjoin us to completely remove mass poverty. We should as Africans target cities without slums.”

Implementing decentralization

By 2050, urban areas will accommodate an estimated three billion additional people, representing 70 percent of the world’s population. And the prosperity of nations is intimately linked to the prosperity of cities, according to? Kumaresh Misra, deputy secretary-general of Habitat III.

“It is necessary to recognize and integrate all aspects of human settlement, which will contribute towards greater social cohesion, promote innovation and truly build an inclusive and dynamic society,” Misra said in Abuja.

A key part of the development of sustainable urbanization policies is the inclusion of local governments in decision-making, as well as the effective implementation of adopted guidelines.

Yet African leaders, though recognizing the importance of decentralization and the need to accommodate the views of local governments when defining policies, have fallen short of matching their words with actions.

In June 2014, African heads of state and government adopted the African Charter on Values and Principles of Decentralisation, Local Governance and Local Development. They also created a new High Council of Local Authorities, a consultative body of the African Union. But since then, the charter has languished pending substantive action from governments.

“The bad news is that since the decision was taken by the heads of state, only five countries have signed the charter and only one has ratified, and none have deposited the instruments at the African Union Commission,” said Mbassi.

[See: Decentralization would boost development, leaders told in Addis]

Africa’s urban population growth is expected to remain among the highest in the world, with the demographic dividend being reaped in the cities. But the challenge is how to make urban areas and cities take advantage of this population growth to become inclusive, safe and sustainable.

Now, supporters say Habitat III will present a key opportunity for African leaders to rethink the continent’s urban agenda, in which which governments can build a new model of urban development that promotes equity, welfare and shared prosperity, and aims to leave no one behind.

That, of course, is a tall order to fill. Taking a lesson from the creation of the High Council of Local Authorities, many now are increasingly focused on making sure that high-level rhetoric and vision can actually translate into action on the ground following this year’s agreement on the New Urban Agenda.

“The [U.?N.] General Assembly has also tasked that the New Urban Agenda should be implementable,” said Misra. “No plans, however perfect or grandiose, can bring benefit to the people unless they are both implementable and implemented. Hence, we should never lose sight that our proposals need to be implemented, especially to ensure that no one is left behind.”