Urbanisation in Africa in the context of climate change: An agenda for COP21

5th October 2015 Sameh Naguib Wahba

Africa is in the midst of a massive urban transformation, with an additional 560 million people expected to live in cities by 2040, double what it is today. Such transformation–which is likely to be the most important transformation that the continent experiences this century–is only just beginning. By Sameh Naguib Wahba, The World Bank Group*

Getting urbanisation right can be a major opportunity for Africa as cities have the potential to create jobs, attract investment and contribute to growth. Yet, the speed and scale of urbanisation presents a complex challenge for policy makers in Africa, who need to plan for growth, deliver services, provide affordable housing and create economic opportunities under tight fiscal constraints, in a context where conflict and climate change add enormous strains.

Africa is urbanising rapidly, but at lower income levels than other regions that have gone through the same process. Sub-Saharan Africa reached the 40 percent urbanisation milestone in 2013 at an average per capita GDP of US$1,018. By contrast, the East Asia and Pacific region reached the same milestone in 1994 at an average per capita GDP of US$3,617. Both the Middle East and North Africa region and Latin America and the Caribbean region reached the same 40 percent urbanisation milestone at an average per capita GDP of more than US$1,800 in 1968 and 1950 respectively. Because of the long lock-in effect of city infrastructure and form that can last over 100 years, policymakers and city leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa cannot afford to get the urbanisation process wrong.

Cities are sprawling at an even faster pace. New Bank research reveals that the fast-growing urban population is leading to rapidly sprawling cities as the rate of urban land consumption far outpaces the rate of population growth. In Addis Ababa, the rate of the city’s urban expansion has tripled since 2007; from 1994 to 2007, the city’s population grew by 30 percent while the city’s urbanised area grew by 19 percent. From 2007 to 2014, the population increased by 17 percent while the city’s urbanised area grew by 51 percent. Similarly, the population density of the Greater Accra Metropolitan Region, declined from about 53 to 18 persons per hectare between 1990 and 2014. Such sprawl results in a significant increase in the cost of infrastructure and service delivery, and at the same time much longer commuting time and increased carbon emissions.

At the same time, infrastructure investment in cities is lacking. Using night-lights data, analysis shows that the intensity of light (which serves as a proxy for infrastructure development) to population data for cities in Sub-Saharan Africa is far below that of OECD cities with comparable population. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the average length of the paved road network in cities is about 300 metres per 1,000 population, a figure that is less than one third of the developing world average. In cities such as Dar es Salaam (one of the fastest growing cities in Africa) and Addis Ababa, the paved road network averages 100 metres per 1,000 population. In Addis Ababa, Accra, Dakar, Nairobi and Ouagadougou, the share of urban land allocated to streets ranges between 10 and 15 percent, compared with a range of 20 to 25 percent for Singapore, Medellin and Guadalajara, and around 30 percent for Barcelona, Paris and Tokyo. The lack of infrastructure and the dearth of investment in public transportation contribute to excluding people from the ability to access job opportunities. In Nairobi, where 42 percent of the urban population walks to work, they are barely able to access eight percent of the job opportunities in the city within a one-hour commute, while those who take the informal mini-buses known as the Matatu are only able to access 14 percent of the job opportunities given the traffic congestion.

In Nairobi 42 percent of the urban population walks to work
In Nairobi 42 percent of the urban population walks to work

The absence of planning and housing policies disproportionately affects the poor. The lack of investment in public transportation infrastructure and absence of proactive policies to enable access to affordable land and housing leaves poor people with no option but to live on marginal land and in areas at risk of flooding and landslides, in order to be closer to jobs and opportunities. In Dakar, some 40 percent of the population that migrated to the city between 1988 and 2008 occupied low-lying areas with high risk of flooding. And in Nouakchott, which is located in a depression 50 centimetres below sea level and suffers from coastal zone erosion associated with the construction of the city’s port, the sea is now advancing towards the city at an annual rate of 25 metres, putting an increased population at risk of flooding. This is aggravated by a rising water table due to sea level rise and the absence of proper drainage and sanitation systems, as well as breaches in the sand dunes due to the widespread use of beach sand for construction.

Cities in Africa face severe shortages in terms of access to land and housing. Overall, some 60 to 70 percent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa lives in informal settlements that lack basic infrastructure and services, and are characterised by insecure land tenure, substandard housing and increased vulnerability to hazards associated with extreme climate events. The lack of proactive urban planning means that commercial and industrial land use is generally lacking in city centres. Analysis of satellite imagery in World Bank Group studies shows that while Ho Chi Minh City has 23 percent of its land allocated for commercial and industrial uses, the comparable figures in Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Kigali are as low as 5.9, 1.1 and 0.9 percent. This leads to inefficient land use and commuting patterns.

The poor are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, natural disasters and conflict. Unplanned urban growth leads to a scarcity of adequate infrastructure and services, especially in terms of drainage, flood protection, water supply and sanitation, which increases exposure, both people and assets, to the impacts of climate variations. Major cities across Africa are frequently subjected to devastating floods, resulting in major damages to infrastructure and assets, as well as economic losses. Rising oceans and changing weather patterns are altering our planet, impacting people and the environment, threatening to undermine decades of development progress. For example, severe flooding in Nigeria in 2012 caused damages and losses equivalent to US$16.9 billion, with an estimated impact on real GDP growth of 1.4 percent. In Madagascar, the impact of the 2015 floods and particularly in Antananarivo city was estimated at US$119 million, or 1.1 percent of GDP. The impact of these floods, caused by heavy rainfall, was exacerbated due to lack of drainage, inadequate solid waste and wastewater management, absence of maintenance of flood protection infrastructure, and landfilling in the flood plains due to unplanned urban growth.

Some 60 to 70 percent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa lives in informal settlements that lack basic infrastructure and services
Some 60 to 70 percent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa lives in informal settlements that lack basic infrastructure and services

Population, assets and economic activity in coastal cities such as Dakar, Beira and Antananarivo will be especially vulnerable to climate-driven events such as projected sea level rise and storm surges. Significant impacts are also foreseen in cities located in deltas such as Benin City and Port Harcourt in the Niger delta. North Africa, West Africa and Southern Africa are three of five places across the globe expected to be at a high risk of future flooding. Finally, droughts and other natural hazards are not the only factors to increase pressure on cities’ infrastructure and service delivery systems; the frequent conflicts in Africa have displaced large numbers of people and had significant impact on places such as Northern Nigeria, Northern Cameroon, Northern Mali and South Sudan.

Africa needs to build cities that work through better planning, connecting and financing. Cities that work require improved urban planning, efficient transportation systems, better integration of land uses and transport infrastructure, and more effective housing policies to connect people to jobs and enable greater access to affordable housing. This also requires increased financing for infrastructure and service delivery, which requires cities to increase their own source revenues, better leverage their land and real estate assets and strengthen their local finances to enable access to capital markets. It also necessitates reforming intergovernmental fiscal transfers systems and introducing performance-based incentives to local governments. Most importantly, it is critical to strengthen local government institutions in charge of urban management. To reap the dividends of urbanisation, African cities need to effectively coordinate investments in housing, infrastructure, and commercial and industrial uses. This requires overcoming coordination failures across sectors and across government jurisdictions to contribute to productive, liveable and inclusive cities and metropolitan regions. Africa needs to build cities that work, and harness urbanisation to enable structural transformation and contribute to growth, as well as strengthen the resilience of cities and metropolitan regions in the face of conflict and climate change.

*Sameh Naguib Wahba is Practice Manager for Urban and Disaster Risk Management in the Africa Region at the World Bank Group.

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