INCREASING urban populations need to be harnessed for economic development through structured settlements to prevent vulnerabilities to disease outbreaks and man-made disasters.
This is the sentiment of Local Government and Chieftainship Minister Habofanoe Lebona, who also asserts that Lesotho needs to urgently address the problem of unplanned urban settlements which are a health and safety time bomb.
"Overcrowding increases the vulnerability to hazards such as fire, resulting in the entire village burning down," Mr Lehana said.
"Communicable diseases become more prevalent in overcrowded places. To avoid this problem, urban development should be planned and managed to yield positive results."
He made reference to Matukeng settlement in Leribe, which is built along a stream, as an example of unplanned urban development vulnerable to disasters.
"Growing up, we knew very well that that place was not for building houses. Our elders built only on elevated ground leaving the waterways preserved.
"But recently, houses have been built there and some of the occupants drown during rain seasons."
"The houses are also not structurally sound to prevent moisture from seeping in, and most of the people have respiratory diseases," Mr Lehana said.
Mr Lehana said this while briefing media on the 9th session of the World Urban Forum scheduled for February 7-13, 2018 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
As the chair nation of the African Union (AU) Urban Development Commission, Lesotho will present the African agenda on behalf of the continent at the forum.
The forum seeks to raise awareness of sustainable urbanisation among stakeholders and constituencies, including the general public; improve the collective knowledge of sustainable urban development through inclusive open debates.
It also fosters the exchange of best practices and good policies as well as increasing coordination and cooperation between different stakeholders and constituencies for the advancement and implementation of sustainable urbanisation.
Since the forum is an open meeting, Mr Lehana implored the local private sector to sponsor Basotho entrepreneurs willing to attend the forum and exhibit their products to the world.
The minister said the Malaysia forum was expected to come up with solutions to the challenges brought by the urban development and that Lesotho and other African countries would use this forum as a networking platform for funding.
He invited all Basotho in the tourism, construction, clothing and water sectors to attend the forum.
"This is a huge opportunity for Lesotho to market itself and we can be able to achieve this by going there in numbers and exhibiting our products and networking with potential investors whom, with technical and financial support, will help us address our human development settlements challenges," Mr Lehana said.
He said Lesotho was failing to address challenges arising from high urban populations, adding that political will was also lacking.
"It has been realised that preventing people from relocating to the towns no longer works because delivering services to the rural areas has not stopped people from relocating to the towns," Mr Lehana said.
It was therefore important, he said, for every country to come up with strategies to create jobs in towns, making sure there is safe accommodation for the internal migrants as well as ensuring that their basic needs like water and electricity were met.
"It is important for us to take the overcrowding caused by urban development into a positive thing that can benefit our economy through job creation and entrepreneurial opportunities."
"Lesotho is already working hard to come up with solutions to these challenges and while we already had the National Settlement Policy to respond to these challenges, the policy was never implemented due to lack of political will and in some incidences, inconsistent political will due to reshuffling of ministers and change of governments."
He said they were exploring several strategies - Urban, Maseru Transportation Study and National Master Plan - aimed at addressing the ever growing human development settlements.
Asked what they were currently doing to address the challenges, Mr Lehana said they embarked on nationwide public sensitisation campaigns to gain the public's confidence on urban planning.
"We need to work hard to correct mistakes of the past by empowering councils with knowledge so that they stop being part of the problem. "They are part of the problem in a sense that they are the ones who allocate land, even on areas that they are not supposed to," he said.
The ministry is currently training 100 town planners after realising that they were not performing as expected. Thereafter, they will establish task teams for the 10 districts of the country.
The task teams will consist of different stakeholders, including the police, whom the minister said will come in handy when addressing the illegal human settlements.