Ministers meet to discuss challenges facing Africa's cities

Housing experts from across Africa are meeting in South Africa this week to tackle some of the challenges facing the continent's cities.

According to the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), Africa is the fastest urbanising continent in the world: by 2030 half of its population will be living and working in towns and cities.

UN-HABITAT conference spokesman Roman Rollnick told IRIN the goal of the meeting was to develop a "common strategy" among African countries to guide national policies on urban management. "Slums house 72 percent of urban Africans, or 187 million people, and two out of five slum-dwellers in Africa live in circumstances deemed to be life-threatening," he pointed out.

Just 19 percent of the urban population in Africa has access to running water, and only 7.5 percent are connected to the sewerage system.

"Over the past 30 years more and more people ... [have been] seeking a better life in towns and cities but, simultaneously, there has been urban decline as African cities become stretched to capacity," Rollnick added.

The first African Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development takes place at a time when South Africa is working on pilot projects for a new housing plan approved by cabinet in September 2004. The plan aims to improve social service delivery to residents in informal settlements, and remove some of the financial barriers low-income earners face when applying for a loan to purchase their own homes.

"An estimated 20,000 people arrive in Johannesburg every month to seek better economic prospects. But the reality is that such a large number of people not only need to be accommodated, but also tend to add pressure to existing services. This means that we have to consider long-term planning when it comes to designing our cities," said Thabang Chiloane, spokesman for the South Africa's department of housing.

Rapid urbanisation was expected to increase the demand for basic infrastructure and other social services. Moreover, the problem would be compounded by the fact that more people would require jobs, while programmes for combating pandemics, such as HIV/AIDS, would come under greater pressure across the continent, Chiloane noted.

"African towns and cities are sharply divided along those who have and those who have nothing," Rollnick commented. "There is a call for government to employ innovative ways to reduce this difference. While finance is definitely an issue, there are ways of turning this situation around, especially by involving the community."