Where the Population Truly Explodes: Third World’s ‘Supercities’

Associated Press

The crowded, jostling 20th Century--an era of war, revolution and achievement--has been more than anything the century of the city. And the 21st Century, experts warn, will be even more so.

In 1900, only one person in 40 worldwide lived in cities. But by the time this century ends, one in two will be city dwellers--most in teeming, polluted metropolises of the Third World, “urban agglomerations” that are fast turning the world’s population crisis into a world city crisis.

The statistics are startling. In the next three decades, cities are expected to swell by the equivalent of the entire world population of the year 1900, about 1.7 billion people, according to U.N. projections. It will be like adding 500 Detroits to the global map.


The reality of human suffering is even more striking--millions fleeing Brazil’s parched northeast and blanketing the steep hills of Rio de Janeiro with abysmal shantytowns; hordes trekking out of the famine-devastated African bush and into the dusty streets of bursting cities such as Lagos, Nigeria; desperate peasants pouring out of the Indian countryside to join the half-million sidewalk sleepers of Calcutta.

Until recent years, the story of the cities was the story of the industrialized world--of booming London, New York, Tokyo. But city growth in such advanced areas is now outpaced by population bulges in urban Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Among Third World cities, only Shanghai had a population over 5 million in 1950. By 2000, there will be 45 such cities in developing countries, U.N. population specialists project. London, meanwhile, will have fallen from the second-largest city to No. 27, if the forecasts hold up.

If current trends continue, greater Mexico City, now about 17 million people and passing Tokyo as the world’s most populous center, will reach 26 million by 2000. Sao Paulo will be right behind at 24 million.

In such “supercities,” life is squalid and compressed. Already in some districts of Cairo and Jakarta, 200,000 to 300,000 people are jammed into one square mile, four times the density of high-rise Manhattan.

Life in such places is dangerous. In a flash, petroleum fires incinerated the flimsy, close-packed shacks of Mexican and Brazilian shantytowns last year, killing almost 1,000 people, and a lethal gas leak from a pesticide plant in India killed at least 2,000 people in surrounding slums.


The warning is clear. “Stabilization of global population is still almost a century away,” writes Aprodicio A. Laquian, a Philippine urbanologist. “Before zero population growth is achieved, therefore, cities could come to resemble insect colonies rather than human habitats.”

The United Nations’ chief population official, Rafael M. Salas, sounded the same warning four years ago at an international conference on the world’s urban future. Has anything been done since then?

“Just increased awareness,” Salas conceded. “That’s all I can say.”

While policy-makers ponder what action to take, Third World cities expand, their populations grow an average 5% a year--twice as fast as the population as a whole.

Natural increase--the excess of births over deaths--accounts for most of the rise. But almost half the new population consists of migrants from underproductive, overcrowded countrysides. Poorly financed municipal governments cannot keep up.

Water is the most basic problem. In Calcutta, 25 slum dwellings typically share one water faucet, and in Jakarta, three-quarters of the homes have no piped water.

But the catalogue of urban miseries is long: shortages of sanitation and health facilities, of schools and jobs, of food, of clean air.


Three million people in Mexico City live in places unconnected to the sewage system. Lagos, one of the world’s fastest-growing cities, does not even have municipal sewers. A sewer overflow in central Cairo in 1982 touched off rioting.

In Manila, 80% of slum children suffer from serious malnutrition, the World Health Organization reports. The yellow and gray smog that clings to Mexico City, in a valley where almost half of Mexico’s industry is concentrated, is believed responsible for tens of thousands of deaths each year.

“What is really alarming,” Salas says, “is that in the next two decades urbanization will increase, and how can the developing countries--poor as they are now--maintain services, food, shelter, health?”

Few Models of Success

When population and urban specialists look for solutions, they find few models--particularly in the Communist world.

Soviet authorities, for example, keep Moscow’s growth under tight rein with a pass system requiring all newcomers to have work and shelter prearranged. In China, tough programs that a decade ago included forced resettlement of city youths in the countryside have kept the urban fraction of the population relatively stable for 30 years.

“But the costs were high to individuals,” the World Bank’s 1984 Development Report said of China’s coercive methods, “and the economy also suffered from misallocations of labor.”


The experts do point to one success story in the non-communist Third World--Singapore. Before 1960, as a British colony, the island had some of Asia’s most dismal slums. But the independent government, combining aggressive family-planning measures and swift economic development, transformed it into a smooth-working and clean city where 80%percent of the people live in new, publicly financed high rises. And population growth is moderating.

However, critics find Singapore’a approach oppressive. In family planning, for example, couples with more than two children are penalized in housing allocations and educational opportunities.

“Always, the main issue in these population questions is, ‘How much control? How much freedom?”’ Salas observed.

Many urban planners hope that incentives--rather than penalties--will encourage growth outside the Third World’s major cities. South Korea has had some success in channeling industrial development into medium-size cities and away from giant Seoul.

But such plans require expertise and investment, commodities often in short supply in the Third World. Last summer’s U.N.-sponsored International Conference on Population in Mexico City called on richer nations to extend more financial aid to developing countries to forestall international urban disasters.

Disasters Not Inevitable

The disasters are not inevitable, Laquian says. For one thing, “Urban misery might discourage more people from having more children,” he remarked, recalling that experiments with rats show that overcrowding reduces fertility.


The experts see few signs, however, that the supercity trends are abating. Instead, they wait for governments to take action to determine whether the typical city of the 21st Century will be a Singapore, a Calcutta or something in between.