Bright Lights, Megacities

The UN Habitat II conference must tackle overpopulation

From Tokyo to Jakarta, the bright lights and neon signs of the city hold a beacon of hope to rural dwellers who migrate in search of better lives. As world population has soared close to 5.8 billion, available land in rural areas has been over-plowed and over-pumped. For many people in developing countries, the countryside offers hardships brought on by environmental degradation and other factors.

The world's largest cities are growing so large - primarily because of rural-to-urban migration and fertility rates - that cities with populations of more than 8 million are designated "megacities." By 2015, Lagos, Nigeria, will be the world's third-largest city, with 24.4 million people, nearly eight times its current population.

On June 3 in Istanbul the last of the series of five United Nations summit conferences gets under way. The challenges brought on by rapid urbanization dominate the agenda at the Conference on Human Settlements, known as Habitat II. Istanbul conferees will seek to devise a strategy to meet the economic, housing, educational, basic-service, and public-health needs of the world's cities. Yet all efforts may be in vain if leaders do not recognize one fundamental factor in the dramatic burgeoning of cities: rapid population growth.

The most crowded of the world's megacities are expected to have populations between 18 million and 27 million by 2015. Of crucial concern are the 27 megacities located in developing countries already struggling to provide their populations with the most basic services. High fertility rates account for two-thirds of megacities' population growth. Only one-third is a result of rural-to-urban migration.

Habitat II delegates know that megacities need jobs and economic stability. They understand the need to house the millions of people who live without adequate shelter and to provide schools and teachers to educate children and ensure a literate population.

Urban leaders also understand how a megacity stresses the environment. Without sanitation systems and pollution controls, megacities spew pollutants into the air and water, harming people and the environment. Currently, 2.6 billion people have inadequate sanitation.

Natural resources such as water are in danger of becoming scarce. Critical water shortages are expected soon in some megacities, including Cairo; Lagos; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Beijing; and So Paulo, Brazil. Some experts think water scarcity will lead to civil uprisings and possibly even wars.

In addition, forests are transformed by urban expansion and people seeking the resources they need to survive. Forests provide 70 percent of developing-world families with their only fuel source. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says forest is being lost most rapidly in Brazil and Asia, where eight of the top 10 megacities will be located.

The health problems of urban poor who have no access to basic health care may threaten other city dwellers and people beyond the developing world. Urbanization and rapid population growth can intensify existing public-health problems.

There is concern, however, that Habitat II conferees may ignore or neglect the population equation that causes or exacerbates many of the more detrimental consequences of rapid urbanization. They may find that their solutions to megacity problems are impractical or impossible unless they recognize the need to stem spiraling population growth. To make their recommendations viable over time as cities continue to grow, leaders must acknowledge the human factor and the need for universal access to voluntary family-planning information, education, and services. According to the World Fertility Survey, 500 million women did not want their last child, wanted more spacing between their children, or do not want another child, yet lack access to family planning.

Fortunately, most UN conferences this decade have recognized the need for family planning. The Program of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) cites universal availability of voluntary family planning as perhaps its most important goal.

Habitat II must endorse the ICPD Program of Action to make its own goals feasible. The health, the standard of living, and perhaps even the very survival of urban dwellers are at stake. So are the lives of us all. On this one small planet, we share natural resources such as water, air, fuel, and food. As citizens of the world, the problems of overpopulated megacities in seemingly faraway places are also our own.

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