Past, present and future perspectives


Click to enlarge

Freetown slum, Sierra Leonie

Edgar Cleijne/Still Pictures

Approximately 38 per cent of the population of Western Africa lives in urban areas-on a par with the average for Africa as a whole (UNCHS 2001a). Cape Verde is the most urbanized country with 62 per cent of the population living in urban areas, and Burkina Faso the least with just 18.5 per cent of its population in urban areas (UNCHS 2001a). The predicted average rate of urbanization for 2000-2015 ranges from over five per cent in Burkina Faso and Niger to three per cent in Cape Verde (UNCHS 2001a). Thirty years ago, only one Western African city (Lagos) had a population of more than a million. By 2000, cities with populations exceeding one million included Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire), Accra (Ghana), Conakry (Guinea), Bamako (Mali), Ibadan (Nigeria), Lagos (Nigeria), and Dakar (Senegal). Lagos, the largest city in Africa and the 6th largest in the world, has an estimated current population of 13.4 million people and this is expected to grow to over 23 million by 2015 (UNCHS 2001b).


The growth in urban populations in Western Africa is the result of a combination of high overall population growth, and migration. Migration, in turn, is a composite of rural push factors and urban pull factors. The population pressures, climatic variability, and fragmentation of tenure and traditional systems, contribute to degradation of soil and vegetation, diminishing yields and worsening food insecurity in rural areas. Prevailing educational systems are also more oriented towards training people in urban occupations than to improving agriculture or animal husbandry in rural areas.

The lure of employment and the perception of improved quality of life in urban areas are increasingly attracting rural populations to the cities. The concentration of amenities (such as health care, educational and recreational facilities) in capital cities such as Abidjan, Accra, Dakar, Lagos and Bamako, and minimum wage legislation also makes urban centres more attractive and employment more favourable than the insecure dividends of subsistence farming. Although several countries of the sub-region (including Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, and Nigeria), experience internal migrations, especially urban-urban migration, a high percentage of migrants from other countries is adding to the growth of towns and urban areas in Western Africa. The percentage of foreign residents in Côte d'Ivoire increased from 23.3 per cent in 1965 to 35.9 per cent in 1990 (Toure & Fadayomi 1992).


Urban growth rates in Western Africa exceed the capacities of municipalities to provide adequate housing and services such as water supply, sanitation, waste disposal, communications and transport infrastructure, health services, and education. High unemployment in urban areas also contributes to widespread poverty and poor living conditions.

Several coastal wetlands in Western Africa have come under increasing threat in recent years from industrial pollution, eutrophication due to sewage, and contamination with solid wastes. Wildlife habitats, especially waterfowl habitats, have also been destroyed (IDRC 1996). In response, some sites have been declared Wetlands of International Importance under the 1971 Ramsar Convention, and are now protected (Ramsar 2001).

Unplanned settlements in Western Africa

Rapid urban growth-complicated by poor urban planning and control of land use, lack of financial resources and inadequate investment in environmental management-has led to the proliferation of urban slums in Western Africa. Although it is difficult to quantify the number of people living in slums, it has been reported that 42 per cent of the population in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, are squatters and, in Nouakchott (Mauritania), approximately 12 per cent of the city's area is taken up with slums (UNCHS 2001c). In Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, a number of schemes have been implemented to improve the living conditions of the 20 per cent of the population estimated to be living in slums. These include the Programme for Institutional Support to Settlement Policy, creation of an Agency for Land Management and the creation of a housing bank (UNCHS 2001c). In Ghana and Nigeria, improved security of tenure and enhanced gender-equality in tenure have been reported in recent years, resulting from sound municipal governance and the evolution of democracy. Although there is no legislated right to adequate housing, the governments aim to provide protection from forced eviction by documenting ownership of properties (UNCHS 2001c). Similar efforts are underway in Senegal (see Box 2g.5).

Box 2g.5 Settlement upgrading in Senegal

Unplanned developments accounted for 25 per cent of Senegal's urban areas in 1987 when the Dalifort Settlement Upgrading Pilot Project was launched. The programme aimed to assist squatters in improving their own living conditions, whilst adhering to environmentally sound practices. To date 500 inhabitants of Dalifort have secured land titles, and water supply, electricity, garbage collection and individual sanitation has been provided for the 7000 inhabitants. This success has sparked interest from a further nine informal settlements (with a total of 100 000 inhabitants) and a presidential revolving fund has been established to provide financial sustainability.

Source: UNCHS 2000

In 2000, an average of around 70 per cent of Western Africa's urban population had access to improved water supply and sanitation, although there were wide differences across the sub-region (WHO/UNICEF 2000). In Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal, for example, over 90 per cent of urban populations had access to improved water supply, whereas in Guinea- Bissau and Sierra Leone less than 30 per cent of the urban population had access (WHO/UNICEF 2000). Over 90 per cent of the people in urban areas in Cape Verde, Guinea, Mali, and Senegal had access to improved sanitation, whereas in Sierra Leone, just 23 per cent of the urban residents had sanitation (WHO/UNICEF 2000). Data are not available for Liberia.

Water pollution, arising from inadequate water supply and sanitation, is both a public health risk and an environmental problem in many cities. Diarrhoeal diseases are amongst the most prevalent preventable diseases, especially among children, and have been correlated with inadequate sanitation. The World Health Organization reports, for example, that washing hands with soap and water can reduce the incidence of diarrhoea by one-third (WHO/UNICEF 2000). Other water-borne diseases include parasitic worms and flukes, and skin and eye infections. Provision of adequate, clean water supply can reduce the incidence of these diseases by up to 70 per cent (WHO/UNICEF 2000). Furthermore, pollution of surrounding habitats and water sources can render them unsuitable as wildlife habitats or can even cause poisoning of wildlife and loss of biodiversity, as well as reducing their productivity and posing further health risks to local residents.