National and International Issues

Our Burgeoning Cities

The population movements around the world have ushered the crisis of rapid urbanization. With millions sitting at the risk of devastating social and environmental crises, building safe and sustainable cities and implementing SDG-11 targets in letter and spirit can help avoid the inevitable crises.



On November 15, 2022, the world’s population crossed the 8 billion mark. This is more than three times the population of 2.5 billion people in 1950. At least 56 percent of the population are now living in cities. If the trend continues, the World Bank estimates that nearly 7 out of 10 people will be city dwellers by 2050. Those numbers should give everyone pause for a thought about what this means in terms of the impact of rapid urbanization and population growth on our cities and towns and the urgency of finding solutions.
Across the world, millions of people are on the move every day, leaving rural areas and heading for cities in search of a better life. Leaving behind the only life you’ve ever known is hard. But dreams of employment, decent housing, education, healthcare, and a brighter future for their families is extremely appealing. Sadly, for the majority who make the move, they are exchanging one life of hardship and poverty for another. 
In many countries, including Pakistan, life in rural areas has become difficult for many. Natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, droughts, crop-devouring locust plagues, the wider impacts of climate change, COVID-19, and depressed economic conditions have made life almost impossible in many areas. Conflict is another global driver for migration with 50 percent of displaced people estimated to now be living in urban areas across the world. A good example is the movement of refugees from the conflict in Afghanistan over the last 40 years, who fled to different Pakistani cities, adding millions of registered and unregistered refugees to the population. 
Cities are fast outgrowing their original boundaries and are unable to cope under the burgeoning weight of rapid urbanization and population growth. This imposes further stress on resources and infrastructure, housing, community facilities, water and sanitation, air quality and pollution. The urban sprawl devours agricultural land creating hardships for small farmers who are left with a few options, other than to move into the city to find work to feed their families.
Globally, cities already absorb two thirds of energy consumption and account for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Increases in population without adequate planning will make the situation worse. The infrastructure of most cities, particularly in the developing world, is in dire need of an upgrade and expansion, but in struggling economies, progress is slow and, in some areas, not at all. Only 50 percent of the world’s population have access to safe public transport, roads are cluttered and the pollution from increased traffic, particularly older vehicles, is massively degrading the air quality. 
Alarmingly, in 2020, about one in four urban dwellers–over one billion people–live in slums or informal settlements worldwide. Of these, 359 million live in Central and South Asia with the largest being in Mumbai. In Pakistan, these slums (katchi abadis) and other informal settlements exist in every city including the national capital, Islamabad. The biggest is in Karachi where millions of people are living in katchi abadis, because they cannot afford to own or rent a home. Facilities are absent, fire safety is non-existent, and any blaze can take out large areas as fire tenders are unable to navigate the narrow laneways and water to douse a fire is scarce. Although many of the city’s workers live in such areas and contribute much to the economy taking on many of the manual labour jobs to keep the cities operating, they get little benefit in terms of living standards. 
Karachi, with its population now exceeding 20 million, is faced with massive problems even in the more upmarket areas. Water shortage in most areas means that residents are relying on regular and costly water tanker deliveries. Waterways are polluted from numerous factories draining their toxic excess into streams and nullahs. Sewage systems are non-existent in parts of the city and insufficient in others. Roads and infrastructure are overburdened and undermaintained. Local flooding is common in the monsoon season. Electricity and gas supplies are erratic at best in many parts of the city. Again, although it provides an example of the perils of rapid urbanization and population growth, it should be reiterated that Karachi is far from being the only city dealing with such challenges. These are common in many cities across the developing world.
The United Nations (UN) International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) World Migration Report 2022 reviews the numerous complexities and impacts of migration. The extensive 540-page report points to serious challenges for those who have migrated to towns and cities due to slow or rapid-onset crises, climate change, economic hardships, or conflict. Sub-standard living conditions, exploitation, ethnic and cultural differences which lead to isolation and violence, and continuing poverty, are not uncommon for new arrivals. The report also highlights the impact on local resources and infrastructure. 
As cities expand and demand for land increases, informal settlement areas are being demolished and residents being pushed out. But where will millions of people go and how will they survive? Various governments have made plans and initiated pilot projects over the years to solve the housing crisis and move people out of slums into decent affordable housing. There have been successes in some countries. But with growing urbanization, and population growth, the number of families who need to be housed continues to grow rapidly, far outpacing supply. 
Pakistan is believed to have a housing shortage of more than 10 million units. To address this shortage, substantial investment from the public and private sectors is required and a mixed development approach is imperative to enhance the viability and offset the enormous costs. An environmentally sensitive, mixed usage approach in planning for new developments is required. This should encompass housing for those on the lower socioeconomic scale, shops, provision of water and sanitation, waste management, electricity and gas, schools, health facilities, transport, green spaces, and management of air and water quality. Without these basic elements, cities will remain chaotic.
A new Pakistan census will be conducted in 2023. With predictions of the population reaching as high as 240 million people, much will be learned about urbanization, population growth and movement since the last census in 2017 which showed the official population as 207.68 million. Population experts estimate that by 2030, Pakistan’s population could reach beyond 262 million. It is hoped that the new census will be a stimulant for a renewed focus on development and city planning challenges to prepare for the future, and make the investments needed to make cities sustainable, safe, and inclusive for all citizens including the poor and vulnerable, women and children, older persons, and persons with disabilities. At the same time, the exploding population numbers need to be addressed by governments to find solutions to reduce growth, introduce incentives, and better educate families about family planning and the resulting improved outcomes on the health, food security and nutrition, particularly of women and children.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by all United Nations Member States, including Pakistan, at the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2015, committed to bringing peace and prosperity for people and the planet. The 17 interlinking Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as Agenda 2030, provided an urgent call for action by all countries in a global partnership to end poverty, improve education and health, address water shortages, eliminate inequalities, galvanize economic growth, preserve oceans and forests, and focus on the climate. 
Sustainable Development Goal 11 provides guidance to address rapid urbanization and human settlements. Goal 11 states, “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. The Goal has 10 targets–a to-do list which clearly sets out issues that should be addressed to achieve this goal. Like all SDG’s, Goal 11 and the targets interlink with all other SDGs and cannot be considered in isolation, but are key indicators of what governments should aim for. 
1. By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums.
2. By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.
3. By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.
4. Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.
5. By 2030, significantly reduce the number of deaths and the number of people affected and substantially decrease the direct economic losses relative to global gross domestic product caused by disasters, including water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations.
6. By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management.
7. By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.
8. Support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning.
9. By 2020, substantially increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans towards inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, resilience to disasters, and develop and implement, in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, holistic disaster risk management at all levels,
10. Support least developed countries, including through financial and technical assistance, in building sustainable and resilient buildings utilizing local materials,
These are indeed lofty goals and targets, but the progress is disheartening. A grim picture emerges with the release of The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022 in July. The annual report tracks global progress towards all 17 SDGs with in-depth analyses of indicators for each Goal. According to the report, “Cascading and interlinked crises are putting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in grave danger, along with humanity’s very own survival. The confluence of crises, dominated by COVID-19, climate change, and conflicts, are creating spin-off impacts on food and nutrition, health, education, the environment, and peace and security, and affecting all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” The Report delivers a tough reality check, identifying how these cascading crises have reversed years of development progress. The reality is that as the 15-year timeline for the SDGs heads towards the halfway mark, very few of the SDGs are close to achieving their targets. 
In relation to SDG 11–Sustainable Cities and Communities–the 2022 report indicates little progress and a growing crisis in rapid urbanization and population growth. Although some improvements were highlighted, they were minimal if at all. However, they should not be disregarded and whatever the slip in timelines, continuing to work towards achieving this and all the Goals is critical. Making our cities safe, livable, and sustainable should not be an impossible dream.
At the Opening Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2022, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and the President of the 77th General Assembly pleaded for the rescue of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and for the governments around the world to get back on track to building a better world that “leaves no one behind”. Acknowledging the current “moment of great peril” for our world–characterized by conflicts, climate catastrophe, division, unemployment, massive displacement, and other challenges–Mr. Guterres said that although it was tempting to put long-term priorities to the side, development could not wait. He told world leaders that there is a long ‘to-do’ list to get the SDGs back on track.
There is no doubt that the cascading and interlinked global crises and conflicts had a profound impact on development across the world. But was it unrealistic to expect that in the 15 years envisaged to achieve most of the SDGs, no massive new crises would erupt? Surely the answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’. One only needs to look at history to understand the regularity of conflict and massive disasters over the centuries. It is surprising that expectations did not fully contemplate the likelihood of increased movement of populations due to new crises nor the additional economic impacts. Every national or international crisis–climate, conflict, pandemics, and economic collapse–leads to migration either internally or across borders, as people make their way to cities, and a call of donor countries to respond. This has been apparent most recently in the Ukraine crisis, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa. Even in developing countries, people have been deserting the rural areas and country towns as the impacts of climate change have struck local economies.
The recent 2022 devastating floods in Pakistan have added to the list of recent catastrophes. With increased extreme weather events creating havoc around the world, it is worth noting that Pakistan is far from being the only country at high risk of dangerous floods. World Bank research indicates that globally, one in four people live in high-risk flood zones. Exposure is especially high in the densely populated and rapidly urbanizing river plains and coastlines in developing countries, where 89 percent of the world’s flood-exposed people live. It is a timely reminder that disaster risk management must be incorporated into all development planning for both rural and urban areas to avoid further economic shocks which few countries are able to absorb.
Target 8 of SDG 11 points to the way on slowing the movement of populations to the cities. The target indicator states, “support positive economic, social, and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning.” Improving local living conditions, better health and education facilities, innovations in agriculture, new livelihood opportunities, and enhancing disaster and climate management in smaller towns and rural areas has the potential to slow down migration to urban areas and take the pressure of the big cities. Surely, this is a more sustainable solution, but it requires innovative planning, budgetary commitments, and political will. 
As the world struggles to fund the massive humanitarian impacts of recent crises and to address climate change, funding for development becomes even more scarce, particularly in a global economic downturn. Although some aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals may have been too ambitious, they do provide guidance to help countries make critical decisions in all aspects of development and economic planning, and an annual analysis of progress. But there is an element of common sense needed–prepare for the best but be equally prepared to deal with the unexpected.’
It is time to make renewed commitments to fully embrace not only SDG 11 but all the SDGs to improve life on this planet, reduce poverty, provide peace and security for all, address climate change and environmental issues, ensure food and water security, and make cities and human settlements everywhere inclusive, safe, resilient, green, and sustainable.


The writer is an Australian Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Advisor who lives in Islamabad. She consults for Government and UN agencies and has previously worked at both ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]
 

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