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December 1, 2011

Within the Next 20 Years, for the First Time in History, Africa Will Become a Predominantly Urban Society

PhotoDakar, Senegal's capital

Within the next 20 years, for the first time in history, more Africans will live in towns and cities than on farms or rural settlements.

The accelerating movement of hundreds of millions of people presents the most formidable challenge to the continent’s 56 nations since the post-colonial independence movement began sweeping across Africa a half century ago.

But the ‘urbanization’ of the world’s poorest and youngest continent could also provide the springboard for future economic prosperity in region which for the last few years has been enjoying more robust growth than many other parts of the world.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), in conjunction with Senegal’s Ministry of Town Planning and Land Use, held a three-day seminar in the Senegal capital, Dakar, Nov. 28-30 for African and Asian nations to explore both the problems of urbanization and potential solutions.

Many Asian countries have already undergone similar rural-urban transformations and the seminar was a unique opportunity for African-Asian countries to exchange experiences and ‘lessons learned’ and to strengthen so-called south-south cooperation between the two continents. It was agreed at the end of the meeting to hold a followup meeting in the near future in Viet Nam.

“African countries are still grappling with such fundamental problems as adequate financing and basic planning,” moderator Samba Diouf told delegates. “But we need to convince our governments that urban migration is not a fantasy. Indeed, it will be the foundation for our future economic prosperity. ”

After a series of presentations by both African and Asian delegates, discussions and site visits in Dakar to view first hand some of the problems facing all cities and some of the possible solutions, delegates were in broad agreement on some of the fundamental problems and broad strategies necessary to stabilize this ongoing mass movement and harness its potential energy into sustained social and economic growth.

They included the urgent necessity of implementing either existing urban planning or rapidly establishing new, comprehensive master plans; the enforcement of existing legal and planning instruments; a massive increase of financial and personnel resources; enhanced training for key personnel and the closer involvement and participation of all ‘stakeholders’ including local community leaders.

“We all have a lot of laws and regulations,” a delegate from the West African state of Guinea said. “We have ‘golden laws.’ But they are only meaningful when they are enforced. The basic question is why aren’t they enforced and do we have the resources to enforce them.”

It was agreed that in many countries rules regulating such issues as land management or building permits for appropriate sites are routinely flaunted, leading to such problems as illegal squatting and illegal housing and widespread flooding and other environmental problems.

A senior Senegalese official said planning had to encompass not only cities themselves but also the rural regions as part of an overall fair and equitable nationwide system.

Otherwise, urban centers such as Dakar would become ‘a black hole, attracting and swallowing everything around it.”

Problems Firsthand

PhotoFlooded industrial zone in Thailand

Though it is currently the dry season in Dakar seminar delegates saw roads, sports fields and urban areas under permanent water—the result of bad urban planning and neglect.

Artificial water basins have been scooped into the earth in suburban areas to corral surface water, but they offer only a temporary solution. They are often disease ridden and overflow during the rainy season, flooding nearby homes and tens of thousands of people are being relocated to safer areas.

Delegates from Viet Nam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia noted that many of their own urban centers had faced similar flooding problems, particularly in the last few weeks.

The participants also saw under construction what eventually will be one of the largest bus stations in West Africa and part of the city’s attempts to alleviate another blight suffered by all rapidly expanding cities: massive traffic congestion.

In a separate presentation, the Rwanda delegation emphasized the need to incorporate into all urban planning special facilities for people with disabilities.

That provision is particularly important in a country which suffered through a genocide in the early 1990s and whose population includes many victims of the conflict in addition to deaf and dumb and sight impaired people.

Asian officials highlighted some of the problems they had faced and some proposed solutions.

Land readjustment—a policy whereby government officials and local landowners work together to jointly develop socially sustainable and economically successful urban regions--has been particularly successful in Japan since World War II and JICA experts have been working with Thai officials to introduce similar projects in that Southeast Asian country.

A Thai official told the seminar that lack of such systematic development in the past had helped exacerbate problems such as air and noise pollution, slums, degradation of water quality and flood devastation. Referring to the current devastating flooding in his country, warned his African counterparts that “If you don’t have good city planning now, some day you may undergo a similar experience.”

Following years of war many of Cambodia’s 14 million people were uprooted from their homes and villages and even larger numbers of Africans have been similarly displaced by conflict, economic and environmental hardships.

Cambodia’s delegation highlighted that country’s efforts, aided by Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA), to resettle rootless people through new legal frameworks, new administrative structures, land ownership and infrastructure projects.

With its more than 17,000 islands and more than 232 million people, Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago. It is also subject to repeated disasters including earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, volcanic eruptions and flooding. An Indonesian official and JICA expert explained one flood management project and the necessity for coordinated planning by everyone involved, including between various government departments.

Vietnamese officials outlined reforms that country had made in its urban planning and development but said it still faced problems including the fact that planning in such areas as legal systems, ‘inappropriate’ urban development and the poor quality of local government had not kept pace with market economy reforms.

Problems and Opportunities

PhotoA crowded street in the Ghanaian capital of Accra

Until now Africa has always been predominantly rural. A half century ago 85% of the continent’s population lived in rural communities. But by 2030 a historical ‘tipover’ point will be reached when, for the first time in history, more of the continent’s people will be living in urban areas than in rural regions. By 2050 some 1.23 billion people, or 60% of all Africans, will by city dwellers.

The population of the Nigerian port city of Lagos was 6.5 million in 1995. By 2002 it had reached 10 million and by 2015 it will become the largest city in Africa with 16 million people.

Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo was a sleepy backwater of 50,000 people in 1940. Within a couple of years it will reach 10 million.

U.N. Habitat, the UN agency which monitors the world’s built environment, reported last year that “Conditions in African cities are now the most unequal in the world. The pattern is oceans of poverty containing islands of wealth.”

This scenario “could spell disaster unless urgent action is initiated today. The situation threatens stability and also entire nations,” the report said.

But there is also good news. Globally “urbanization has been associated with improved human development, rising resources and better living standards,” the UN agency said.

And Africa seems poised to take advantage of such momentum. Not only does it have a young and vigorous population, but the continent’s recent overall economic growth of around 6% is higher than many other regions in the world It has abundant space to both absorb physical infrastructure growth and increased food production.

Progress, however, will require “well devised public policies that steer demographic growth, create urban economies and ensure equitable distribution of wealth,” the UN agency said, mirroring the conclusions of the Dakar seminar.

Asia and Africa

That meeting highlighted a basic JICA approach to development assistance and for several years it has encouraged closer intercontinental ties between Asia and Africa to strengthen both so-called south-south and triangular cooperation. It has promoted training programs for African personnel not only in Japan but also in various Asian nations.

In Asia, the agency has already participated, through grant aid, yen loans and technical assistance, in helping build vital urban infrastructure such as roads, airports, ports, sewage and transport systems and health facilities in such cities as Bangkok, Hanoi and Saigon.

JICA is directly involved in Africa not only through individual projects but also a continuing process known as the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) which began in 1993 as a collaboration between African nations, Japan, other interested countries and international and regional organizations and is dedicated to improving the continent’s economic, social and environmental situation.


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