Environmental problems political solutions
Most urban environmental problems have underlying economic or political causes. It may even be misleading to refer to many of the most pressing environmental problems in low-income cities as environmental since they often arise not from some particular shortage of an environmental resource (e.g. land or freshwater) but from economic or political factors which prevent poorer groups from obtaining them and from organising to demand them. The severe water shortages that much of the urban population face might be considered a serious environmental problem but, often, the problem is not a shortage of freshwater but governments' refusal to give a higher priority to water supply (and the competent organisational structure its supply, maintenance and expansion requires). In cities where there are serious constraints on expanding freshwater supplies, where the city and its production base have grown to exceed the capacity of local freshwater resources to supply it on a sustainable basis, providing adequate supplies to poorer groups may require less water than that saved by better maintenance of the existing system and more realistic charges for other water users. Similarly, in most cities, it is not land shortages that cause so many low-income groups to live in overcrowded conditions and concentrate on dangerous sites (for instance, flood plains or steep slopes) but the failure of the authorities to plan for and allocate more suitable sites.
The weakness of city and municipal authorities
Most environmental problems also arise from the failure or limited capacity of government:
- To control industrial pollution and occupational exposure.
- To ensure that city-dwellers have the basic infrastructure and services essential for health and a decent living environment (whether the providers are private, NGO, community-based or public sector).
- To plan in advance to ensure sufficient land is available for housing developments for low-income (and other) groups; and
- To implement preventive measures to limit risks from, for instance, traffic and extreme weather events.
The large health burden caused by environmental hazards is also linked to the inadequacies in provision for community-based health care and emergency services.
This does not mean that government agencies should undertake all these tasks. Community, NGO or private sector provision is often more effective or simply the only possibility because of the weakness of local government. But ensuring these are effective requires:
- A supportive public framework within which private or community land developers and infrastructure and service providers can operate.
- Measures to ensure more public accountability by industries for their emissions and waste management.
- Frameworks to make markets work, as in, for instance, ensuring a competitive market among private water suppliers, bus companies, land developers and building material suppliers. In large part, this is also a failure of governance. The term governance is understood to include not only the political and administrative institutions of government (and their organisation and inter-relationships) but also the relationships between government and civil society. There is also a lack of accountability by most urban authorities towards their citizens for their policies and expenditures (including a lack of transparency in the way that decisions are made and resources allocated). In many urban centres, the judiciary also does not function as a means of allowing citizens to hold their governments to account.
For most countries, the grave limitations of urban government can be partly explained by the national economy's weakness; effective government action in ensuring a healthy environment for citizens is much more difficult without a stable and reasonably prosperous economy. In many, it is also related to the limited powers and resources allowed to urban governments by higher levels of government.
Remedying these failures of government within cities and city-districts, and addressing the reasons which underlie them should be central to any urban environmental agenda. Strengthening the capacity of city and municipal governments to address the Brown Agenda, including lack of sanitation, drains, piped water supplies, garbage collection and health services is generally a pre-condition for building the institutional capacity to address the Green Agenda of protecting natural resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Building more effective government responses to environmental problems includes:
- A shift from a focus on improving urban management to a focus on good governance, which includes a more effective framework of support for citizen groups and NGOs within more accountable and transparent government structures.
- A more explicit linking of environmental improvement with poverty reduction.
- Environmental agendas within each urban centre which respond to the specifics of each location, society and culture within national frameworks that reward good regional and global practice (including limiting the ecological costs passed onto other ecosystems or into the future); and
- New professional attitudes.
New professional attitudes
There is a need for new attitudes among professionals whose training also equips them to work cooperatively with low-income households and the community organisations they form. If, as many specialists have recommended, more support is to be channelled to citizen-directed, community-level initiatives, professionals need to learn how to work cooperatively at community level.
Professional resistance to innovative local solutions is a major constraint. Architects are loath to cede to low-income groups the right to develop their house design and room layout. Planners do not want their zoning structures or sub-division regulations questioned. Transport engineers dont want to negotiate with each low-income settlement about the amount of space to be allocated to roads and thus have their regulations and methodologies for calculating space allocation to roads questioned. Water engineers dont want to engage in discussions about the depth of trenches and size of pipes with community organisations, even if this has large cost implications for the members of these organisations. Underlying these are the more fundamental constraints posed by inappropriate building codes, infrastructure standards and planning norms.
Many case studies show how the most pressing environmental problems can be greatly reduced at a relatively modest cost especially where local groups and institutions play a central role in developing solutions. In many cities, there is also a considerable demand (i.e. capacity and willingness to pay) for water, sanitation, health care and garbage collection but the combination of an institutional incapacity to deliver cheap and effective services and a reluctance by professionals to permit innovative (non-standard) local solutions inhibits action.