The Overcrowded Third World City

IN a speech before a bustling crowd in Sarh, Chad, earlier this month, Pope John Paul II stated, ``To the youth of this country I say, do not leave your villages and towns for the city. Stay in your village, earn a good living, and raise your family there.'' The Pope's remarks come at a serious juncture in the economic and social development of nations throughout the third world. Rapid urbanization in these countries is accelerating annually. On average, the urban population in the developing world is doubling every 12 to 15 years, with no expected end in sight. While a high birthrate is generally recognized as the primary cause of rising populations in metropolitan regions, rural-to-urban migration is cause for more than one-third of the overall growth rate of city populations.

Strain on urban institutions and infrastructure is an inevitable byproduct of overpopulation, particularly in locales which already suffer from poor and inefficient public services. The impact of this migration on both natural resources and facilities is predictably great. In Alexandria, Egypt, for example, an antiquated and deteriorating sewage system designed to serve about 1 million people now services about four times that number. In nearby Cairo, the population of the ``City of the Dead,'' a sprawling squatter village of cemetery dwellers, is exploding at the seams as Cairenes search unsuccessfully for affordable public housing. Similarly, half of Istanbul's streets did not exist only 15 years ago, and almost none were originally designed for sewage, electricity, and water lines to support the city's burgeoning new population.

Just as the urban population rises, so too do the common signs of ``over-urbanization.'' In many of the major third-world metropolitan regions today, hundreds of cars choke the avenues. The air is thick with carbon monoxide. Children play in the streets amid piles of trash and filth, and the main sources of water for drinking and irrigation are little more than public toilets as they take in raw sewage, refuse, and other pollutants. In regions where demands for food, water, housing, and energy have increased due to urbanization, the incidence of political instability has risen as well.

The need to reverse this spiraling phenomenon is long overdue. Third-world governments could begin by decentralizing some of their investments and development infrastructure to the smaller cities and countryside. Health and educational standards must be improved in regions outside of major city cores to lessen the city's attraction to rural populations. Also, development of employment opportunities in nonurban regions should be emphasized to discourage migration in search of economic survival.

Unless incentives are offered to make rural living a more attractive prospect, the massive influx will continue and ``de-urbanization'' will remain elusive. As third-world nations strive to develop and industrialize, few will have sufficient capital or resources to provide quality services in the most remote of farms and villages without outside help.

But with the explosive threat of a population time bomb now reaching overwhelming proportions from Mexico City to New Delhi, it appears they have little alternative. It is therefore incumbent upon third-world nations and donor states alike to recognize that a policy of decentralization is essential for successful development and growth.

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