A lack of clean water and sanitation in burgeoning slums could trigger a complex set of humanitarian crises says a new paper, Urban Catastrophes: The Wat/San Dimension, by the Humanitarian Futures Programme (HFP) of King's College London, which keeps an eye on possible crises that could emerge in the not too distant future.
Using plausible but fictitious scenarios set in the slums of Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, and the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil, the paper shows how water scarcity brought on by climate change and large numbers of people in urban areas could lead to water stress, especially in slums, where shortages can stoke conflicts and an outbreak of a new and virulent influenza.
Simultaneously, the new biennial report by UN-HABITAT, the State of the World Cities 2010/2011: Bridging the Urban Divide, notes that around 3.49 billion people - more than half the world's population - now live in urban areas, of which 827.6 million are slum-dwellers. The global slum population will probably grow by six million each year, pushing the total number to 889 million in another 10 years.
Urbanization can also provoke water-quality problems, leading to outbreaks of waterborne diseases like cholera. An outbreak that began in the slums of Luanda, the Angolan capital, killed over 2,800 people in 2006, when only 66 percent of Angola's urban population has access to safe drinking water, according to the UN.
Water shortages in slums could open the door to corruption, conflict and an increased risk of disease, setting off a range of complex humanitarian crises. Many of these factors are already evident and operating in slums across the world, the authors of the HFP report note.
"As with any valuable good, the provision of clean water and sanitation facilities in slums is an attractive target for corruption, greed, collusion and exploitation," the HFP researchers pointed out.
In areas where there is a lack of accountability and political oversight, "resulting in collusion between government officials and private-sector water providers", slum dwellers have to pay a very high price for water, and sanitation falls by the wayside.
The result is that the civil society is weakened and ability of slum dwellers and external players to change the system and help the residents out of poverty is curtailed, the HFP report commented.
There is also evidence that water shortages threaten increased violence and conflict, especially in "high-density, multi-ethnic, politically unequal environments of concentrated poverty, as is often found in many slums," the HFP report said, citing reports of water-related protests and conflicts in Bolivia, Pakistan and India.
Risk of disease
As larger numbers of people move into already crowded areas, they are often forced to live in unacceptably poor sanitary conditions, sometimes even at close quarters with animals, giving rise to opportunities for new disease vectors, noted the report. In slums located in tropical climates, the chances of new forms of diseases evolving are high.
What to do
Randolph Kent, who heads HFP, pointed out that the projections were for 20 to 30 years in the future, "but the idea is to provide enough time to countries to plan ahead".
He suggested setting up low-tech, cheap service delivery systems - for instance, to provide water, use segmented flexible rubber hoses that can be easily connected and disconnected. The hoses are produced by several independent companies, can be serviced and maintained by unskilled technicians, and offer plenty of design options.
For waste removal, the report suggested an improvement on the traditional chamber pot - use antibacterial plastic buckets that can be fitted with mechanically sealing covers, as on commercial compost bins. The bucket can be carried either by hand or taken by cart to a dumping point like a municipal sewer, then cleaned by hand or at a semi-automatic hot water and bleach station, and delivered to the family for re-use.
Source: the humanitarian news and analysis service, IRIN, http://www.irinnews.org