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Sunday, 25 October 2015

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Urbanization, the region's biggest challenge

By 2018, more than half of Asia-Pacific's population is expected to live in urban areas, making it the biggest challenge facing the region's governments and cities, says a new study.

The report, titled The State of Asian and Pacific Cities 2015, was launched on October 19 at the Sixth Asian Pacific Urban Forum in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Compiled by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), the document noted the unprecedented speed and scope of urbanization in the region. Between 1980 and 2010, Asia-Pacific's cities grew by one billion people. The urban population in the region is expected to reach 3.2 billion by 2050. In China and India alone, the number of people living in cities is expected to grow by 696 million.

The number of megacities in the region is also expected to increase. Currently, Asia and the Pacific is home to 17 megacities, three of which are the world's largest (Tokyo, Delhi and Shanghai). By 2030, there will be 22 megacities. The report attributes rapid growth rates to globalization and economic growth, which has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and created a thriving urban middle class that accounts for almost two billion people.

However, despite wealth gains, the region is still home to the world's largest urban slum population and largest concentration of people living below the poverty line.

Urban slums

According to the World Bank, 758 million people in Asia live below the US$1.25 poverty line. Asia also has 60 percent of the world's total slum population, UN-Habitat has reported.

Though low-income households may experience income increases, they also face higher costs of living as land values rise and urban sites occupied by poor communities come under development pressure.

This has led to cases of forced evictions.

For instance, during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, almost 500,000 people were evicted from their homes to make way for the construction of sports facilities, commercial centres, residential buildings, and office towers. Similarly, during the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Dehli, 200,000 low-income urban residents were evicted. Inequalities within cities are therefore persistent and widespread as urban poor continue to lack access to adequate shelter, water, sanitation, health and even a legally defined address, the report stated.

UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of UNESCAP Shamshad Akhtar noted this dark side of economic growth, stating: "Unacceptable numbers of people continue to live in slums, earn insufficient incomes and live in vulnerable and unhealthy environments." "Current economic models are not providing a sufficient basis for inclusive and sustainable development," she continued. The report also warned that the region's cities are among the most vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change.

Almost three-quarters of global natural disasters between 1970 and 2011 occurred in the Asia-Pacific region. Poor and disadvantaged communities have been and will continue to be disproportionately affected, the report added. The report underscored the need to make Asian-Pacific cities more resilient, safe, inclusive and sustainable.

Akhtar highlighted: "The need for strong leadership and political commitment, both at the national and subnational levels, to gear up responses, learn and adapt from the region's successful stories of urban transformations, and deploy innovation and newer technologies, strengthening local governance institutions and working more closely with private sector to manage urbanization."

It has been an "urban century," the report noted, where the number of people living in towns and cities is greater than those living in rural areas for the first time in history.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by world leaders last month, include commitments to enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization.

- IPS

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