By the turn of the century, over half the world's population will be living in cities. Yet already a billion city dwellers are homeless, and our cities are increasingly polluting the land, the water and the air we breathe. National and local governments from around the world will be meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, in June, to respond to these mounting challenges. You can help persuade them to act.
The world's cities are growing by a million people a week. By the year 2000, there will be over 3 billion city dwellers on Earth, many of them living in 23 'mega-cities', each with populations of over 10 million.
Yet many cities are already facing crisis. In the world's poorer nations, up to 60% of the urban population lives in abject poverty in shanty towns. 40% of city dwellers around the world have no access to safe drinking water or adequate sewage and sanitation systems. Cities everywhere are clogged with traffic, and urban waste management is often completely inadequate.
The results are disastrous. The number of children dying every year from drinking unclean water is the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of children crashing every ninety minutes. Untreated sewage from cities pollutes lakes, rivers and coastal waters. Vehicle exhausts damage the health of city residents and are a major contributor to global warming. And good agricultural land is steadily being paved over as cities expand.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Please write, as soon as possible, to one of your representatives in your national parliament or congress. Ask him or her to urge your government to make, in the aftermath of the Habitat II conference, concrete financial commitments to provide:
* Safe, sustainable, affordable housing, including basic services, for all city dwellers, as an urgent priority.
* Clean water, sanitation and improved waste management for all city dwellers within the next decade.
* Improved, affordable public transport networks in all cities, and measures to discourage private car use.
Sample letter to a Member of Parliament/Congress
In Istanbul, Turkey, in June this year, governments from around the world will attend the UN 'Habitat II' conference, to discuss the future of the world's cities. I am writing to ask you to encourage the government to go to Habitat with concrete commitments to help solve the growing problems of the world's cities.
By the end of this century, half the world's population--over 3 billion people--will be living in cities. But those cities--already growing by a million people a week--face critical problems, which can only worsen as they grow.
Over half of the city dwellers in the world's poorest countries live in shanty towns. A billion city dwellers have no access to safe drinking water or adequate sewage, sanitation and waste management systems. Contaminated water is one of the world's biggest killers--the number of children dying every year as a result of drinking unclean water is the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of children crashing every ninety minutes. And as cities grow, the environmental problems facing them deepen--their streets clog up with cars, their air becomes polluted and the surrounding land is swallowed up by the expansion of the city.
The UN Conference on Human Settlements ('Habitat II') could make a real difference to the future of our cities--but only if governments agree to take firm action, and commit the necessary resources.
I urge you to press the government to announce, at the Habitat II conference, concrete, financial commitments to provide:
Safe, sustainable, affordable housing, including basic services, for all city dwellers, as an urgent priority.
Clean water, sanitation and waste management for all city dwellers within the next decade.
Improved, affordable public transport networks in all cities, and measures to discourage private car use.
I hope you can find time to act on this important issue. Please let me know what you hear from the government.
BACKGROUND: The Growth of Cities; and The Habitat II Conference.
THE GROWTH OF CITIES
By the year 2000, half of the world's population will be living in cities, and that proportion will continue to rise, reaching an expected 75% by 2025. Already, three quarters of the industrialised world lives in cities. Cities all over the world continue to attract migrants from rural areas because they offer the possibility of social and economic advancement. But this rapid growth has direct effects, for city dwellers themselves, and for the environment and the rest of humanity.
THE URBAN ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGE
The stress of continuing rapid urban population growth is exacerbating the serious problems which cities already face. The long list of urban afflictions includes rising crime and poverty rates (up to 60% in some parts of the world), disease and death caused by contaminated water and un-hygienic or non-existent sewerage systems, congestion, air pollution, and widespread lack of safe housing and shelter. Inevitably, these problems tend to be worse in poorer countries, and in bigger cities. By 2000, there will be 23 'mega-cities' around the world, each with populations of over ten million. Sixteen of them will be in the less industrialised countries of the south, where more than half of the total urban population already lives in temporary, dangerous and unhealthy shanty towns.
The environmental problems that stem from rapid urbanisation have the heaviest impact on the poorest city dwellers, who tend to live in the worst, most dangerous housing, have much less access to basic sanitation and services such as waste collection, and often do not have any legal rights to the land they occupy. Cities, in both rich and poor countries, can also have serious environmental impacts on the surrounding countryside, including pollution of seas and rivers, depletion of water supplies, destruction of forests for fuel and loss of agricultural land.
HOUSING AND LAND: Today, more than a billion city dwellers have no homes at all, and many do not even have legal rights to the land on which they live. Uncontrolled growth of cities has greatly reduced the amount of land available for affordable housing. In many countries, children are the ones who suffer most. Street children are often forced into prostitution or crime, and can suffer at the hands of authorities determined to 'clean up' the streets for visitors and wealthier city dwellers. Lack of permanent shelter can also lead to forced evictions of people from their temporary housing--a violation of international human rights. Tackling the housing problem, however, is not simply a matter of building new houses. What is needed, all over the world, are national shelter policies which promote affordable, safe and environmentally friendly housing, and that ensure access to land and credit for the poor. Making such policies work will require cooperation between governments and all sectors of society.
WATER AND SANITATION: Forty percent of the world's urban population has no access to clean drinking water or basic sanitation, and the results are often fatal. Three million children die every year as a result of drinking contaminated water, which is one of the major killers in less industrialised countries. Open sewers can spread fatal diseases, such as cholera and typhoid, through urban populations. Demand for water in cities all over the world is seriously depleting water supplies, and better waste treatment is essential to protect rivers, lakes and coastal waters polluted by the human waste from cities. Providing clean water and sanitation for all the world's city dwellers will again require cooperation between all levels of government, businesses, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and other sectors of society, to develop the best solutions, and to generate the needed funding. The development of new, low-cost, easy-to-install technology, such as shallow sewers and pour-flush toilets should make it possible to provide these services for everyone within the next decade.
TRANSPORT AND AIR POLLUTION: Safe, affordable public transport is clearly vital in all cities, and particularly so in poorer countries where far fewer people can afford private cars. Few cities have good integrated public transport networks. In many cities that are experiencing rapid economic growth, the streets are clogged with cars, making it difficult to use other, more environmentally-friendly forms of transport, and causing serious air pollution. Worldwide, vehicle exhausts are the fastest- growing source of emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In Mexico City, the most polluted city in the world, the air is so dirty that local children, when asked to paint a picture of the sky, paint it gray. In almost every country on Earth, the resources allocated to urban public transport systems are inadequate to meet the needs of growing populations. There are no simple and universal answers to the transport problem, but discouraging use of the private car, and increased investment in public transport, must be priorities in all cities.
HABITAT II – THE CITY SUMMIT
The UN Conference on Human Settlements is the second international 'City Summit'. The first was held twenty years ago in Vancouver, Canada, where governments adopted a Declaration of Principles, and 64 specific recommendations for improving urban environments. Further attempts to tackle the problems of urbanisation were made in 1988, when the UN General Assembly adopted the Global Strategy for Shelter to the year 2000. Later, the Earth Summit in 1992 adopted 'Agenda 21', which contained guidelines for making human settlements more environment-friendly and sustainable. Despite these efforts, however, the problems of the world's cities have seriously worsened. Habitat II is an attempt to achieve more than just general policy recommendations. It is intended to achieve concrete results - specific commitments from governments to finance and provide housing programs, clean water, sanitation and other vital services. Governments are expected to prepare national plans of action for improving their cities over the next five years (1996 - 2000), and are expected to have consulted with private businesses, NGOs, academics and other members of the local community in drawing up those plans. However, many of the plans drawn up so far are vague, and contain few, if any, concrete commitments. The additional Global Plan of Action, which will be drawn up and signed at Habitat II, is intended to provide bold and innovative policy recommendations to guide the national plans.
There is a danger that Habitat II may commit governments to nothing more than vague promises to improve their cities. NGOs around the world, and a small number of governments, most notably the Australian government, are calling for a 'Conference of Commitments' at Habitat II, in which all nations will publicly announce specific, binding, commitments for improving their cities.
UNICEF INSERT: Children's Rights and the Habitat Declaration.
The current agenda for the Habitat II conference gives insufficient attention to the needs of children for a safe, secure and healthy living environment. To address this shortcoming, policy makers attending the Habitat conference should give greater consideration to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty which has been ratified by 187 countries. The Convention grants children the right to adequate housing and an adequate standard of living. In addition, the Convention states that the provision of an appropriate living environment is essential to the realization of many of the other rights of children.
To establish the relevance of the Convention to the goals of Habitat II, a diverse international group of officials, practitioners, researchers and activists has been convened by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Commission on Human Settlements (UNCHS) to articulate a declaration of the conditions necessary to meet children's needs. They concluded that the following conditions are necessary for achieving the rights of children. The living environment of children includes the services and resources of family, home, neighborhood and community. It also includes the full range of social and economic policies that affect the well-being of children.
At the family level
It is widely recognized that a caring and responsible family is the best environment for protecting and promoting the well-being of children.
The lack of adequate housing is a serious impediment to the survival of families and their capacity to provide nurturing care. The right to housing has been clearly established in a number of international human rights instruments, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and most recently in the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. Adequate housing includes legal security of tenure, including protection from forced eviction and displacement, availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure; affordability, habitability, accessibility and location.
In order to survive, families must be ensured opportunities to pursue livelihoods which do not undermine family life.
States have an obligation to assist the family in all its forms in providing safe, secure and healthy homes which can safeguard the best interests of children.
When children are not able to live in secure family environments, the role played by other individuals should be recognized and supported. Vulnerable children without homes, parents or guardians are entitled to the full protection and assistance of the State.
Within the home environment
The child's need for a secure, safe, healthy environment begins in the prenatal period.
A healthy home includes a safe and sufficient water supply, safe and accessible sanitation and waste management; also protection from traffic and other hazards, freedom from exposure to pollution, radiation and disease, and from excessive noise and overcrowding.
The home environment should meet children's basic physical, social and psychological needs.
Children of both sexes should be provided with equal opportunities and challenges for play and learning.
Particular attention should be given to the home-based needs of disabled and other vulnerable children.
Within the neighborhood and community
A supportive environment for children includes healthy, crime-free and peaceful communities. It is essential that conditions promote social justice, gender equality and participation in community life.
Childhood and adolescence must be recognized as unique stages in human cultural development, requiring respect and understanding by the community and society. Street children and others in difficult circumstances should not be excluded.
Health care, education and child-care services of high quality must be available and accessible within the community.
It is essential that children have safe, secure and protected environments within the community where they can play, participate and learn about their social and natural world. Adolescents, too, need places where they can be together, experience autonomy and feel a sense of belonging.
Children have a special interest in the creation of sustainable human settlements that will support long and fulfilling lives for themselves and future generations. They require opportunities to participate and contribute to a sustainable urban future.
The well-being of children is the ultimate indicator of a healthy society. Investments in children are investments in the future. And the protection and development of children requires commitment and action across all levels and sectors of society. The achievement of these conditions will require significant changes in political and economic decision-making, specifically:
the empowerment of civil society, especially of low-income groups, women, children and youth through access to information, employment, resources and services;
the accountability of all levels of government, the private sector and international agencies for the impact of their policies, investments and actions on children and their families; and,
the full participation of all citizens, of all ages, according to their capacities, in decision-making and implementation. Specifically, governments should ensure that community-based organizations and individuals, especially children, are given the means to create strategies to improve their communities.
EarthAction encourages you to send a copy of this UNICEF insert to representatives in your national legislature. Ask them to urge your government to ensure that the Habitat Agenda gives special attention to the rights of children to a safe, secure and healthy environment.
For more information contact:
Alfredo Missair or Ximena de la Barra
The Urban Section
633 3rd Avenue
New York, NY 10017 USA