Mayors from across Africa gathered in Yaoundé, Cameroon today for the Third Africities Summit of local authorities seeking to redress the continent's myriad urban problems and rapidly growing slums.
The theme of the conference, which is scheduled to run until 6 December, is the urgent need to ensure access to basic services in African towns and cities where up to 70 per cent of urban populations live in slums areas characterised by their lack of basic services, sub-standard housing, overcrowding, hazardous locations, insecurity of tenure and social exclusion.
"This conference is an opportunity to bring much needed attention to these issues, and to address some of the underlying factors that have hindered sustainable urbanization in Africa", said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a message to the conference. "I urge you to make this a priority and to do your utmost to make African towns and cities places of opportunity and prosperity for all."
His message was read out by Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, the UN agency for cities and other human settlements. UN-HABITAT, the UN system's focal point for local authorities around the world, is working to alleviate poverty in Africa's slums.
In its Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, UN-HABITAT figures showed that Sub-Saharan Africa has the world's largest proportion of urban residents living in slums, making up 72 per cent of urban Africa's citizens, representing a total of 187 million people.
Africa's annual average urban growth rate is 4 per cent, twice as high as Latin America and Asia. Already, 37 per cent of Africans live in cities, and by the year 2030 this is expected to rise to 53 per cent in what has been calculated as the world's highest rate of urbanisation.
To many people, Africa is hailed as the last great un-urbanised continent on earth. Even today, two-thirds of the total population of sub-Saharan Africa is rural, 200 years after the beginning of the industrial revolution.
"Most of us imagine that this will always be true. Because our ties to the land and our rural roots run so deep, we believe and hope that they will continue to sustain us, no matter what the economic circumstances at the surface", said Mrs. Tibaijuka. "However, in a process we at UN-HABITAT call the urbanisation of poverty, more and more people are seeking a better life in towns and cities. In Africa, this urbanisation has occurred in an environment of consistent economic decline over the past 30 years."
The United Nations Millennium Declaration recognises the dire circumstances of the world's urban poor. It articulates the commitment of Member States to significantly improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by the year 2020. UN-HABITAT is tasked with coordinating this goal.
Another of the Millennium Development Goals that UN-HABITAT is also tasked with is coordinating the task of reducing by half the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation. In Africa, over half the urban populations lack these basic human necessities.
Citing water, energy, health, shelter and other basic services required to help alleviate Africa's urban poverty, Mrs. Tibaijuka was at pains to remind her audience that that this is the crux of the resolution on the urban challenge passed by the African Union Assembly at its last summit held in Maputo, Mozambique, in July this year. The African Union has mandated UN-HABITAT to work with local authorities to assist in the continent's urban recovery, she said.
UN-HABITAT runs two major world-wide campaigns: the Global Campaign on Urban Governance, and the Global Campaign for Secure Tenure. These coupled with the agency's various programmes have helped develop substantive initiatives to service local authorities in Africa.
In a measure of the gravity of Africa's urban crisis, Mrs. Tibaijuka stated that in sub-Saharan Africa only 48 per cent of urban households have a water connection, while in the informal settlements only 19 per cent have such a connection. Only 31 per cent of urban households are connected to the sewerage system, but in the informal settlements only 7 per cent are connected. Just 54 per cent have electricity in their homes, yet in the slums this figure is 20 percent. While just 15.5 per cent have a telephone, only 3 per cent have this luxury in the slums. "These figures speak to us of the urban divide in Africa".