Setting the urban development agenda

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Recently, Ethiopia hosted the 14th annual session of Global Forum on Human Settlement (GFHS) in Addis Ababa, which is the first GFHS forum taking place in Africa. With the theme, “Sustainable Development of Cities and Human Settlements in the Digital Era”, the annual session has planned to support campaigns on smart city and the use of digital technology for inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities.

The session, which was co-organized by Global Forum on Human Settlements (GFHS), United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and World Urban Campaign (WUC) brought together around 500 participants including senior officials from the United Nations and other international organizations, dignitaries and diplomatic envoys from relevant countries and government representatives.

The Urban trend in Ethiopia

During the discussions, it was stated that although Sub-Saharan Africa is regarded as the world’s rapidly urbanizing region, countries like Ethiopia has low level of urban population. Currently, Ethiopia has about 20 percent urban population and 4.1 urban growth rates per year, compared to the population growth rate of about 2.4 percent.

To be more concrete, there are 117 urban areas in Ethiopia with population that has greater than 20,000. The future of 100 million plus population settlement will yet to come in the urban areas and newly emerging towns and cities.

Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy said except Addis Ababa partially, almost all cities have no modern waste water management, and storm water management is also scanty.

Hence, many service areas and provisions are needed including water supply and sanitation, electricity and energy, watershed management with rural and urban linkage areas. In addition, the Minister said, sustainable cities require investment in renewable energy sources, efficiency in the use of water and energy, design and implementation of compact cities, retrofitting of buildings and increase of green areas, fast, reliable and affordable public transformation and improved waste recycling systems. “All of these services need a nexus approach in water, food, energy and climate in view of inclusive multipurpose development,” he noted.

The Ethiopian Government, with the initiative of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has recently mobilized the entire public by initiating a four Billion Tree National Green Program based on the principle of 40 Tree per Head. The major objective of the initiative is to synergize human, financial and institutional resources to maximize green urban and rural areas thereby reversing national level of deforestation and develop conducible environment for living. “One of the key focuses of the initiative is the urban renewal and greening,” he said.

In view of the sustainable development river corridor mapping and buffer zone establishment, solid waste cleaning and management, waste water and storm water management, urban greening and gardening are currently under implementation in selected towns, the Minister stated.

In relation to Addis Ababa, the other initiative of Prime Minister Abiy is the beautifying and modernizing Addis Ababa, that has started to completely transform the city to modern one with green corridor, cleansed river systems, stewardship for the watersheds, with a need investment of a billion dollars.

The trend in Africa and beyond

More than 54 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and by 2050 the concentration of people in cities will increase to 66 percent, especially in Asia and Africa.

In the last two decades, cities and urban centers have become the dominant habitants for humankind and the engine-rooms of human development as a whole. On the other hand, poverty, which remains the greatest global challenge facing the world, is increasingly concentrated in our urban areas. This dimension is also starkly manifested in Asia and Africa.

Chairman of Global Forum on Human Settlements, Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury said as a civil society partner, GFHS’s intention is to support the African priority in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda as well as Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “I reiterate that cities have the potential to shape the future of humankind and to win the battle for sustainable development. Cities are at the forefront of the global battle against climate change.”

The challenges

Though the emergence of technologies helps better possibilities, there are numerous challenges in many developing countries like Ethiopia. First, most of the settlements are still scattered in the wide span of rural areas and hence are not easy reach to develop infrastructure. Again, settlements because of diseases and strategic defenses have been traditionally in the highland, in heavily populated, in low productive and degraded areas and thus they have trapped significant population in poverty and vulnerability. Urban settlements are not also planned or equipped with necessary facilities. And many social challenges like urban poverty, homelessness and so on exist.

“We also must be concerned with the large numbers of our people that live in informal settlements and operate in the informal economies, both in rural and urban areas,” Oliver Chinganya, Director at African Center for Statistics at Economic Commission for Africa.

It is estimated that 60-70 percent of urban households live in slums and close to 90 percent of the population in Africa live in informal housing. This is a large share of the population that live in overcrowded, unhealthy and risk environments. “It lacks the basic services and social protections that many of us here take for granted such as clean and safe water, a decent toilet, little deeds or rental agreements, among others.”

In addition, about 85.8 percent of the total workforce is employed in the informal sectors where the basic legal and social protections and rights of workers do not exist. In some case, close to a third of the workers in the informal sectors are contributing family members with low skills profile and low productivity resulting in low earnings, especially among women and children. They have no retirement plans, medical cover or defined leave days, he said.

Both formal and informal settlements coexist in a seemingly peacefully and uneasy environment that need to be addressed and should not be dismissed. “First, the informal sectors provide valuable services and contribute to the GDP of the country over a quarter for countries such as Kenya and Zambia. It is also known that, a number of the workers in formal employment live in informal housing,” he noted.

Similarly, the informal sector and formal sector are linked and affect each other. “A cholera outbreak in informal settlements quickly spreads or affects formal settlements and businesses. We therefore have a responsibility to devise solutions to improve the lives of people in informal as well as formal settlements.”

The opportunities

The economic role of cities cannot be overemphasized. Cities are centers of productivity, investment, markets, urban jobs and immense business opportunities. Thus cities are nerves of development of the existence of areas that serve multiple purposes which in turn attract different type of people that perform different jobs to interact.

“From this perspective, we need human settlements that are inclusive, safe and environmentally conducive. They must be places where public and private support and services institutions collaborate, complete and support each other to bring about change and drive innovation,” Chinganya said.

Settlements in Africa are transforming at a rapid rate. “Some are at unprecedented rate in our recent history. We can even argue that the narrative of a rising Africa is perhaps best seen through the lenses of the transformation in human settlements and digital technologies.”

Over the last three decades, many African cities have witnessed the rise of multi-purpose use facilities, from business and technology parks, financial centers, multitudes of learning and healthcare institutions, to diverse private and public utilities. All of which have improved the quality of life of habitants.

“Cities such as Libreville in Gabon and Gaborone in Botswana have GDP per capita of over $7,500. These are some of the high income cities by World Bank definition and most of Africa’s middle class dwell in these cities.”

Hence, Chinganya said it is also important to note that the trend towards urbanization in Africa has been accompanied with the growth of a consumer class with about 42.5 percent of the region’s population now living in cities. This underscores the significance of the cities as drivers of investment, innovation, growth and wealth creation with multiplier effects on urban jobs and poverty reduction.

As late starters in the urbanization and with rapid growth, developing countries like Ethiopia should utilize newest technologies. The major drivers of change in urban settings such as ICT, innovation, clean and renewable energy, electrified vehicles and trains, advancement in efficient buildings, waste management, and the like will leapfrog developing countries to create new and modern urban, as there is no lock in and these advancements (sometimes called as disruptive technologies) provide late comer advantage.

The Ethiopian Herald September 12, 2019

 BY ESSEYE MENGISTE