Urban areas: Africa

While the majority (62.1 per cent ) of the African population is still rural, urban growth rates at nearly 4 per cent a year are the most rapid in the world, and nearly twice the global average (United Nations Population Division 2001). Growth rates are predicted to average 3.5 per cent per year over the next 15 years, meaning that Africa's share of the world's urban population will increase from 10 to 17 per cent between 2000 and 2015 (United Nations Population Division 2001).

North Africa is the most urbanized sub-region with an average urban population of 54 per cent, followed by West Africa (40 per cent), Southern Africa (39 per cent), Central Africa (36 per cent) and the Western Indian Ocean islands (32 per cent). The least urbanized sub-region is Eastern Africa with only 23 per cent of the population living in urban areas (United Nations Population Division 2001). Malawi has the highest urban growth rate of any country in Africa, which at 6.3 per cent is three times the world rate.

Not only are there more people living in cities but the cities themselves are becoming larger, and more numerous. There are now 43 cities in Africa with populations of more than one million inhabitants, a figure which is expected to increase to almost 70 by 2015 (United Nations Population Division 2001).

Urban populations (millions) by sub-region: Africa
Urbanization level (%): Africa

Graph above shows growth of urban populations in the African subregions since 1972; the map shows current level of urbanization as a percentage of total population

Source: compiled from United Nations Population Division 2001

Africa's high urban growth rate is a result of ruralurban migration, population growth and, in some areas, conflict. People leave rural areas because of declining agricultural productivity, lack of employment opportunities and lack of access to basic physical and social infrastructure. The expectation of higher incomes and standards of living in urban areas is seldom realized, however, and urban poverty is widespread and growing. In Moroni, Comoros, 40 per cent of the population lives in poverty (RFIC 1997), and in Southern Africa up to 45 per cent of urban households grow crops or raise livestock in urban environments in order to supplement their livelihoods (UNDP 1996). Environmental disasters and conflicts have also caused many people to flee rural areas and seek refuge in urban centres. In Mozambique, about 4.5 million rural people were displaced to urban areas due to civil strife in the 1980s (Chenje 2000), while the third largest settlement in Sierra Leone is a displaced persons camp (UNCHS 2001b).

Urban improvement initiatives
  • A series of urban upgrading projects have been under way in Ghana since 1985, in one of the most extensive efforts in Africa. By 2000, these had improved infrastructure and services for nearly half a million people in five cities (United Nations Population Division 2001).
  • Safer Cities Dar es Salaam is a programme initiated by NGOs and CBOs in 1998 to create awareness and build capacity in crime prevention. Activities include job creation, organizing community security groups and analysing crime statistics. The programme has since been replicated in Abidjan, Antananarivo, Dakar, Durban, Johannesburg and Yaounde (UNCHS 2001b).
  • In 1997, South Africa built more than 200 low-cost housing units with environmentally friendly features such as dual flush toilets and passive solar energy design to minimize the energy needed for heating and cooling. The units initially accommodated athletes to the All Africa Games but were later allocated to residents of Alexandria, one of Johannesburg's worst slums (Everatt 1999).

Because of slow economic growth in many African countries, lack of sound development policies and an increasing number of small households, infrastructure development has been unable to keep pace with the burgeoning need for shelter and services for growing urban populations. As a result, many African cities have an increasing number of overcrowded, informal settlements, or 'shanty towns', characterized by inadequate housing and poor provision of infrastructure such as roads, street lights, water supplies, sanitation and waste management services. Often these settlements are developed on fragile environments such as steep slopes, natural drainage waterways and flood-prone areas. Inadequate housing and settlement design can also contribute to declining security and increasing levels of crime in African cities (Shaw and Louw 1998).

Governments and authorities have attempted to meet the demand for housing and services through increased construction. South Africa, for example, has produced more than one million low-cost houses during the past six years (DoH South Africa 2000). However, lack of awareness of resource-efficient construction practices has resulted in excessive use of natural resources and generation of large amounts of construction waste that is rarely recycled (Macozoma 2000). In addition, new settlements have mostly been on open land on the urban periphery rather than on little used land within the cities, thus requiring expansion of infrastructure rather than more intensive use of existing networks. Attention is now shifting to integrated development planning, and housing policies that support environmentally sustainable housing have been developed in some countries.

Key environmental issues in urban areas in Africa are related to the provision of services for waste, water and sanitation, and urban air pollution.