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Climate change and rapid urban expansion in Africa threaten children’s lives

In the Kechene district in Abbis Ababa, Ethiopia only 15 percent of all residents have access to clean drinking water.  With 50,000 people packed into a small area with only limited access to water, sanitation facilities, and health care, this urban slum is a breeding ground for dangerous diseases that cost children their lives.

Now, a new report published by the United Nations warns that if action is not taken immediately to develop sustainable policies and stop climate change, billions more children may be living in squalid slum conditions in the decades to come.

According to this year’s World Economic and Social Survey (WESS), based on current trends, by 2050 more than 6.25 billion people will live in urban areas. 80 percent of this population growth is expected to be concentrated in developing regions of Asia and Africa.

Girl in Karagocha slum. Photo credit: The Advocacy Project

Girl in Nairobi’s Karagocho slum. Photo credit: The Advocacy Project

Dr. Willem van der Geest, Chief Development and Strategy, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), told UNEARTH News  that the world’s governments need to act now to invest in social services and sustainable infrastructure to help prevent a humanitarian crisis caused by a rapidly growing slum population.

“The fact that future urban population growth would be concentrated in Asia and Africa, where most of least developed countries (LDCs) are placed, means that urban and national governments would be challenged to invest on affordable and adequate access to clean energy, sound housing, good quality education, and health care,” van der Geest explained. “This situation will be further exacerbated in some of these countries if economic growth continues to prevail together with high or rising inequalities.”

Anthropogenic climate change, caused primarily by the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, also will continue to threaten those living in urban slums.  “LDCs have the highest economic and social vulnerabilities relative to any other group of countries or regions,” Alex Julca, an economic affairs officer with UN DESA, told UNEARTH News.

“The increased frequency and intensity of natural hazards such as droughts, floods, and storms, which we examined in the World Economic and Social Survey 2011, would deepen these vulnerabilities and severely affect agricultural produce and increase the livelihood risks of residents living in slums,” Julca continued.

If not remedied by sustainable policies and social planning, the 2013 WESS report warns, climate change and mass urban migration threaten to cause a humanitarian crisis in the least developed nations on an epic scale, with over 3 billion people living in urban slums by the year 2050 without access to clean water, sanitation, electricity, and education.

“Our concern is that one in 8 people in the world today are still chronically undernourished,” Shamshad Akhtar, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, said. “With an additional 2.4 billion people by 2050, food availability will have to increase by 70 percent globally.”

Yet, in the least developed nations of Africa, droughts have already reduced agricultural yields and caused famine when rain-dependent crops failed. “Climatic change has already affected poor countries more than more resilient developed countries,” Julca stressed, “Already their vulnerabilities include very low GDP per capita, inadequate access to health care, energy, education, high levels of undernourishment and infant deaths.”

School in Nairobi's Kibera slum. Photo credit: The Advocacy Project

School in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Photo credit: The Advocacy Project

Changing weather patterns and failed harvests have also already begun to force families off rural lands and into growing urban slums like Kechene, where a lack of sanitation causes disease to run rampant.  According to the African Medical and Research Foundation, the largest medical organization currently working in Africa, “The lack of sanitation [in urban slums] leads to the spread of diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and childhood diarrhea – one of the leading causes of death in children.”

As the population soars in urban slums in the decades to come and the impact of climate change worsens, hunger and disease in urban slums will increase. The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasized that if something is not done to bring about a more sustainable future in the least developed nations “urbanization and climate change may work synergistically to increase disease burdens.”

Brodie Ramin, a physician who studied the impact of climate change and slum growth in Africa for the World Health Organization, called the mix of climate change and rapid urbanization a serious and growing humanitarian threat.  His report, published in the WHO Bulletin, cautioned that more attention and resources needed to be devoted to the growing crisis of urban expansion that may ultimately spawn widespread disease outbreaks and send childhood mortality soaring.

“African slum dwellers are particularly vulnerable to the negative health effects of rapid urbanization and global climate change,” Ramin concluded.

Pointing out that the rapidly increasing numbers of people living in slums in the coming decades will lead to higher pollution levels, sanitation concerns, water scarcity, hunger, and disease outbreaks, Ramin noted the poor conditions in slums will impact the quality of life for billions of the world’s poorest and ultimately cost many children their lives.

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