The first Asia-Pacific Ministers Conference on Housing and Human Settlements opened in New Delhi on Wednesday with clarion calls to reduce urban poverty and pollution in the world's most populous region.
"Increasing urbanisation is emerging as the most pervasive and dominant challenge in the region," India's Minister of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, Kumari Selja told the opening plenary.
Cities, she said are the hubs of economies, investments, technology, innovation, economic growth and tertiary jobs. They make huge contributions to GDP as reservoirs of skills and hope for millions of people in the rural hinterlands.
"However, they are increasingly faced with negative consequences such as the polarisation of populations in large cities, high density, slums and squatter settlements, acute shortages of housing of and basic civic amenities, degradation of the environment, traffic congestion, pollution, poverty unemployment, crime and social unrest," she said.
The four-day meeting hosted by India with UN-HABITAT drew ministers and representatives from more than 35 countries on its first day.
Citing United Nations figures, Kumari Selja said that if no ameliorative action was taken the global slum population would reach 1.4 billion by 2020, the majority in the Asia-Pacific region, with one out of every two people living in city slums.
"In India , nearly 61.7 million urban people live in slums and squatter settlements which constitute over 21 percent of the urban population," she said. "This conference must therefore work towards developing strategies for housing and slum-free human settlements.
She said the government was "very concerned" about the plight of people living in slums, a concern passionately raised by India's Urban Development Minister, Mr. Jaipal Reddy, who cited under-performing civic services and structures as largely to blame. He said the Indian slum improvement programme was based on the four priorities of delivering safe drinking water, providing sewers and sanitation, installing storm water drains, and finally, improving public transport.
"We need to treat our cities as living eco-systems," Mr. Reddy said.
In a plenary speech read on his behalf, Mr. Kim Hak-Su, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) urged delegates to keep the Pacific urban agenda in mind during their deliberations: "In view of the tremendous problems of urban poverty and slums on mainland Asia, the urban problems of the Pacific island developing countries tend to have been overlooked."
Yet a study in nine Pacific Island countries conducted by his agency with UN-HABITAT, UNDP, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the Asian Development Bank cited both a lack of awareness among these countries of their urban poverty problems and of the many innovations devised in Asia to solve such problems. Since 2004, UNESCAP, from its headquarters in Bangkok, had been implementing a regional project entitled, 'Housing the poor in urban economies'. It was also preparing a special training and capacity building website with UN-HABITAT. The two agencies were also working together on projects in Cambodia and Timor Leste.
Mr Hak-Su recalled that UNESCAP and CITYNET had held a special seminar at the Third Session of the World Urban Forum in Vancouver in June 2006 to coordinate and highlight new urban approaches in the Asia-Pacific region. That meeting was followed up in Mumbai, India last month and the process would be carried through to the next session of the World Urban Forum in Nanjing, China in 2008.
"We intend to use the opportunity of this conference of this conference in Delhi to talk to UN-HABITAT and the City of Nanjing about our initiative. In addition, we are exploring the possibility of producing a report for the fourth session of the World Urban Forum in Nanjing in collaboration with UN-HABITAT and the Asian Development Bank," Mr. Hak-Su said.
Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, UN Undersecretary-General and Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, said in a speech read on her behalf by her Senior Advisor, Mr. Kalyan Ray, that she appreciated the collaboration with countries in the region, the Asian Development Bank and sister agencies like UNESCAP. "You represent the world's most populous region – the region with most of the world's largest cities. You represent a part of the world that is the global economic powerhouse of the future. You are gathered here to help devise a common new vision aimed at harnessing some of that great Asian know-how and economic power to ensure that our growing cities of the future will not only be better managed, but manageable – or what we in the United Nations call, sustainable," she said.
The world was now living in a new urban age. "We all know that the year 2007 will be the year in which humanity for the first time is predominantly urban. We also know, that with 50 percent of the global population now living in towns and cities, that the process of urbanisation is irreversible. By the year 2030 it is projected that 54.5 percent of the Asian population will be living in cities. And Asia alone will account for more than half the world's urban population – 2.66 billion people out of a total population of 4.94 billion."
Further information [clickable to attached speech]