From Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, to Johannesburg, South Africa, Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tbilisi, Georgia, and scores of other countries around the world, World Habitat Day was celebrated with fanfare, pomp, ceremony and warnings from local and world leaders of worsening conditions in urban slums.
Audiences in many neighbourhoods heard first-hand of water and sanitation problems in a rapidly urbanising world, an issue highlighted as the theme of World Habitat Day this year because at least 1 billion people world-wide suffer from the dangers and indignities associated with the lack of clean water and adequate sanitation. World Habitat Day is celebrated each year on the first Monday in October, and this year the event was spearheaded from Rio de Janeiro, where a message from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was read out. In it, he was at pains to remind governments that by agreeing to the Millennium Development Goals, they had pledged to halve the number of people without clean water and decent sanitation by 2015, and to improve the living conditions of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020. His message was read out over and over again to those marking the occasion from London to the far reaches of the Pacific.
As delegates arrived in Rio de Janeiro from around the world, many took time to visit the Cajú neighbourhood, a favela or slum that is home to almost 800 families, and typical of the slums where almost 20 per cent of the city’s 1.1 million residents live.
What is remarkable about Cajú is the excellent access that its residents have to all basic facilities such as water and sanitation, electricity, transport and social services. Located on the Rio waterfront, it is a model example of the positive results of the municipality’s Slum to Neighbourhood initiative, started in 1993. The Brazilian Minister for Cities, Mr.Olivio Dutra supported calls for improved access to water and sanitation insisting Brazil would prioritize these basic needs for the uraban poor. He said city authorities in Brazil firmly endorsed the right of the poor to the city and that the government would soon be establishing a National Council of Cities committed to the basic principles of good urban governance and the need to provide the poor with some form of security of tenure.
Mr. Borge Brende, the Norwegian Minister of the Environment, Chairman of the Commission on Sustainable Development, reminded the delegates that the time for words was over, because they now had to ensure that the Millennium Development Goals would be met.
Half a world away, in Nairobi, Kenya, just a few kilometres from UN-HABITAT’s world headquarters, the contrast in the Kiambiu slum was stark. A few metres behind the Kiambiu grounds where government figures joined diplomats and UN officials to celebrate World Habitat Day, passageways between homes built of mud, sticks and tin, reeked from puddles of dirty waste water in conditions of overcrowding and misery.
“The challenge of providing water is real,” Mr. Raila Odinga, Kenya’s Minister of Roads, Public Works and Housing told a crowd of several thousand gathered to celebrate World Habitat Day. “Nairobi has experienced rapid population growth and this has resulted in over-stretched water supply systems. This is worsened by poor planning and congestion,” he said in a keynote speech. The ceremony was also attended by the Minister of Lands and Settlements, Mr. Amos Kimunya, representatives from local authorities, and various non-governmental organisations.
Mr. Raila said demand for water and sanitation in urban areas would increase in response to increased growth in urban population. In Nairobi, he said only 77 per cent of the population enjoyed access to safe drinking water, while an estimated 23 per cent of the city’s population had to depend on other sources of water mostly regarded as unsafe. He deplored the fact that about 50 per cent of treated water is wasted through leakages and misuse. Slum dwellers suffer the brunt of the high cost of water, often being forced to pay 10 times more than those who get clean water piped to their homes. Similar issues were raised in discussions marking World Habitat Day in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township, which is situated almost within sight of Sandton, one the country’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, and in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
“There is an alarming decline in per capita investment in both water and sanitation the cities of most developing countries,” said UN-HABITAT Executive Director Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka in her keynote address in Rio de Janeiro.
“The annual flow of resources to the sector will have to increase all round if the Millennium Development Goal related to water and sanitation is to be reached,” she said.
Capping World Habitat Day celebrations around the world, awards were presented to a select group of individuals and organisations for their work towards making cities around the world sustainable environments for future generations.
The National Association of Municipal Sanitation (ASSEMAE) in Brazil was honoured for promoting water and sanitation services in Brazilian Municipalities, the Weihai Municipal Government in China for outstanding improvements in shelter and urban environment, and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WASH) in Switzerland for its contribution towards sanitation and hygiene for the urban poor.
Ms. Teolinda Bolivar of Venezuela was awarded for distinguished work on social and physical problems in low-income settlements, including the legalisation of land tenure in low-income urban neighbourhoods, and Mrs. Margaret Catley-Carlson of Canada for her outstanding contribution to placing water and sanitation issues high on the global political agenda. Ms. Zena Daysh, of the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council (CHEC) was awarded for setting up ComHabitat, the Commonwealth Habitat Committee committed the implementation of the Habitat Agenda within the Commonwealth.
Mr. Garcia Dura of Colombia for defending the cause of sustainable human settlements in key international negotiations. Mrs. Sankie D. Mthembi-Mahanyele was honoured for spearheading the South African Government’s strategy of ensuring the delivery of 1.45 million housing units over 8 years, for 6 million poor people, and Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak from India for developing and helping build twin pit pour-flush toilets around his country.
Ms. Nasreen Mustafa Sideek of Iraq for her outstanding commitment to the welfare of the displaced and vulnerable persons in Northern Iraq, and Ms. Jane Weru, of Pamoja Trust in Nairobi, Kenya, was awarded for playing a key role in upgrading informal settlements in Nairobi which includes providing slum dwellers with clean water and decent sanitation.
UN-HABITAT used the occasion of World Habitat Day to release another warning: that the number of urban slum dwellers worldwide could double to 2 billion in the next three decades. The new Global Report on Human Settlements 2003 - The Challenge of Slums says the number of poverty stricken people living is slums is now at the 1 billion mark – making up 32 per cent of the global urban population. For detailed information on World Habitat Day, see WHD 2003