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Box II: Poverty and the Urban Environment

lthough sub-Saharan Africa is the least urbanized region in the world, its urban population is growing quite rapidly. In 1965, urban areas accounted for only 14 percent of the total population of the region; by 1990, however, such areas accounted for 29 percent, and by 2020, the figure should be more than 50 percent. Already, there are 27 metropolitan areas with populations greater than 1 million and 1 (Lagos) with a population of at least 10 million.23

Consequently, even in urban areas, the widespread poverty exerts a strong negative impact on air, water, and land resources. The ongoing economic crisis has intensified the level of air pollution in most countries. Most households can no longer afford to use petroleum or gas products for fuel and are relying increasingly on charcoal or wood. This has greatly increased the amount of carbon dioxide generated by cities in the region. While in 1991 the region accounted for just 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions from industrial [processes, its total contribution to global carbon dioxide emissions (from both urban and rural areas) was 19 percent.24 Also contributing to the problem is the increased use of substandard industrial equipment and motor vehicles, made necessary because the region lacks the funds to invest in more environmentally responsible devices. Thus, three countries in the region—South Africa, Zaire, and Nigeria—are now ranked among the top 50 countries in terms of their 1991 contributions to global greenhouse emissions.25

Air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, exposes the populations to serious health hazards, especially from suspended particulate matter and lead. Most sub-Saharan African cities do not yet suffer from serious outdoor pollution. Nonetheless, the increased use of wood and charcoal in household kitchens is exacerbating indoor air pollution and heightening the risk of acute respiratory infections, particularly among infants and children. In some areas, lead pollution from substandard vehicles is also starting to increase health risks.

Access to clean water is also a major problem throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Although the region as a whole has substantial water resources, a number of countries in the drier areas have experienced serious shortages. Within these countries, some 35 percent of the urban population has no source of drinking water within 200 meters of their homes. For 13 of the 18 countries for which data are available, the proportion of the population with ready access to water has declined since the 1970s26; in countries without data, the situation is probably worse.

Safe water, however, is at a premium everywhere in the region. Water pollution, largely from human waste, has become a serious health hazard because the economic crisis is preventing most countries from providing adequate water treatment. Diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and diarrhea are spread by drinking contaminated water, while bilharzia, guinea worm, roundworm, and schistosomiasis are spread by bathing in it. Water pollution thus exacts a tremendous toll on the population of sub-Saharan Africa, raising infant mortality rates and impairing the health of all age groups.27

Degradation of land resources, mainly from improper disposal of solid and toxic wastes, is another problem. Although the volume of such wastes is much lower than in industrial countries, most of the region lacks even rudimentary collection and disposal facilities. Refuse is simply dumped along roads and other public places or into waterways, contributing to the spread of disease. Although toxic waste is not yet widespread and exposure is fairly localized, there is fear in some countries of surreptitious trade and dumping of such hazardous waste.


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