As I said in my previous article, we are experiencing a unique time in Earth’s urban history. The migration of people to cities is by far the biggest humans have witnessed, and it’s well underway. The question is whether the urban revolution of the Anthropocene will add to the environmental and social problems of our age, or whether it can provide sustainable solutions?
Key to this is how the slum districts of developing world cities evolve. I visited Khulna, a city in southern Bangladesh, where shrimp farming had brought considerable wealth to local landowners and the country as a whole – it was the second most important GDP generator after the garment industry. However, the city's success gathered misery in its outskirts as migrants were drawn to Khulna’s apparently gold-paved streets – around 40,000 people a year were moving there.
In the town’s slums I met some of these fortune seekers. Sleeping seven-to-10 in one-room hovels, many of these people had been forced from their villages by river erosion, by increasing flooding due to sea-level rise, loss of subsistence farming due to increased salinity, and crippling poverty. Everyone came hoping for a better life for themselves and opportunities for their children.
Jamal Fakir and his wife Rakha Begum invited me into their small shack that they shared with their five children. Jamal was a cycle rickshaw driver, and Rakha and the four oldest children – of whom the youngest was seven – all worked in one of the shrimp factories a few yards away. Although Khulna lies 150 kilometres (90 miles) from the Bay of Bengal, I could already feel the effects of rising sea levels.
Jamal told me that during the highest tides, at full moon, the water reached at least knee-height in their house, whereas five years previously it had rarely entered the house. Others who had lived here for as long as 15 years chipped in, telling me that the floodwater stayed there for longer in fetid stagnant pools. Dhaka University climate scientist Atiq Rahman, an IPCC member who studied sea level rise in the area, told me that it was rising by 7 millimetres per year in Khulna (more than double the global average).
The water carried sewage, disease and destruction into the houses. People sought refuge on the road, which was slightly higher, living under tarpaulin or palm leaves. The people there had strange skin complaints, some of which were the result of arsenic in the water, but others were due to their unsanitary living conditions and malnutrition.
I’ve seen extreme levels of deprivation in most cities and towns in the developing world. It is often most pronounced in urban centres experiencing the most dramatic improvements in prosperity, such as Nairobi (recently ranked the second worst city to live in) and Mumbai. Mumbai, which is on track to become the world’s biggest city, is home around 6 million slum dwellers – half of the city's population – many of whom live in the shadow of some of the world’s most expensive new apartments.
But slums exist even in the heart of Europe. The largest, Canada Real Galiana on Madrid’s borders, is home to 40,000 people, with rampant poverty and infrastructure as poor as in any developing world shantytown.
Seeds of hope
Globally, there are over 1 billion slum dwellers in informal housing. By 2030, one in four people will be an urban squatter, rising to one in three by 2050, according to United Nations predictions.
But although scenes of squalor, accumulation of rubbish and polluted waters look like destitution, slums are rich seedlings for the vibrant cities of the future. Many of today’s established capitals, including London and New York, launched from similar embryonic beginnings. A few minutes in many of the shantytowns of Africa, Asia or Latin America reveals a bustling, informal labour market of street stalls, repair shops, barbers, ad hoc cinemas, and all manner of enterprise.