18 November 2012

Ethiopia: The Blessing and Curses of Urbanisation


Urbanisation and its incessant expansion have become both curses and blessings in many developing countries of the world, not least our fair nation.

They are curses because they attract influx of the people from the rural areas and the hinterlands of the country, causing heavy pressure on the carrying capacities of cities and urban centres.

The demand for water increases at an accelerated rate, while the source of water is still the same, causing a critical deficit. Housing and its ancillaries, such education and health care services, have to be met in the shortest possible time.

The most challenging demand for employment also stays pressing. No doubt that urbanisation increases the demand to get employed for people could not survive without jobs.

One the other hand, the growth of urbanisation becomes a blessing because it creates dynamics of socioeconomic growth in the country by way of industrialisation and trade, which are the main movers of the national economic growth.

The pros and cons of urban development need to maintain a well-thought and studied balance that considers short, middle and long term growth plans. Among the most critical, and often neglected, issues is the eviction of labour from the agricultural sector, due either to scarcity of cultivable land share of each member in the family, expansion of mechanised farming, expansion of education in the rural areas and the increase of migration of job seekers to towns and urban centres.

Unless the influx is planned down to the last figure, as much as could be anticipated to grow in the foreseeable future, any attempt to cater for the growing demands would only be futile that would soon prove to be inadequate, even before any part of the intervention is implemented.

The fourth week-long event held last week in the fast growing the Rift Valley city center of Adama, attended by 150 towns and city centres from different parts of the country, has been an excellent showcase where major challenges of urban development reside. Valuable experiences were also exchanged among the urban centres.

The Dire Dawa city administration experience of constructing adequate housing before demolishing misplaced houses or unwanted slums was largely appreciated by all participants of the event for its timely undertaking without having to expose the dwellers and render them vulnerable to the problems of homelessness.

The weeklong conference also discussed with a stronger vehemence a long range of issues including the bleeding corruption or heartbreaking bribery also known as "rent seeking" in its cordial naming. One official went even further to attribute all the hurdles of urban development to rent seeking as an underlining factor for all evils.

For the attendants of the conference, like many sceptics and casual observers, the most crucial problems of urbanisation is housing. Citizens have a constitutional right to live in a descent house as a human being with dignity and pride. This is one of the basic human rights any government of any ideology ought to respect.

We are living in an age where mere food and clothing are not enough. This is also a world where the rights of animals like pet dogs, cats and pack animals are duly respected and legalised. Hence, there is no room to ignore human rights.

What happened in Nefas Silk Lafto Distrct, Wereda 01, last week, was indeed dismal, to say the least. More than 600 houses and shelters were said to have been brought down by a couple of dozers, guarded by policemen. The dwellers, some of whom were sick in bed or lying after delivery, lactating their babies, were not even unable to escape from the falling wreckage when their houses were demolished after only a three days short notice.

Taiba Yassin spoke to me about her plights, while sitting in the ruins of her house, holding a baby fast asleep leaning on her chest.

"I don't have any place to go," she sobbed. "My daughter had gone to Saudi Arabia leaving these kids on me. What am I suppose to do? We have been here all day and night despite the fording heat of the sun and the chilly weather during the night" she cried.

Tamire Hailu, 40, is also another victim the eviction. He says that his family had lived at the suburb, also known as Kersa Gontoma, some distance from Hana Mariam, for over seven years. Access to his house is possible only by horse-driven carts.

The neighbourhood was even awarded prizes for the participation they had in every developmental activities, including a fund-raising of over 1.5 million Br for electrification. They had paid all their annual land tenure taxes and have their official receipts.

"What else is expected of us?" he wonders, "We had elected five representatives to go and plead with the concerned officials but nobody cares."

Obviously, the concerned officials cannot take such a massive demolishing measure without sorting out squatters from legal settlers. Many of the subjects I saw seem to cry over their fate rather than implicating any one for their painful ordeal and living rough. The women and the children sit and forth biting their lips ashamed to sit down and weep.

Squatting is a common problem in an emerging economy. Cities like Mexico and Rio de Janeiro in Latin America are facing it. Their population has exploded beyond carrying capacity.

Of course, some of these countries have rich sources of oil and other minerals. But, in recognition of the challenge, they are also getting industrial as fast as possible since they have no choice. The problem propels itself.

Like in Dire Dawa, eviction can be done in phases, if there is the goodwill to locally source good lessons. The Ministry of Urban Development & Construction (MoUDC) foresees to settle at least three million people by constructing about 600,000 houses in the coming years, assuming each household contains five people. This strategic plan has to materialise, in phases, if all of the growing population of our cities is meant to be accumodated with decent housing and the necessary utilities.

But the stark question is: where would the capital required for such a bold move could come from?

It all seems a promise with multiple faces, one of agony and another of incapacity.

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