Slum Ecology

Inequity intensifies the Earth's natural forces

| March 16, 2006


The United Nations estimates that more than a billion people currently live in dire urban conditions. Dangerous and polluted shantytowns line the outskirts of almost every major city in the developing world. Some 32 percent of the world's urban population live in slums, and the number is growing every day. Mike Davis, author of the Los Angeles urban development expose Ecology of Fear, turns his attention to the global problem of urban poverty in his new book, Planet of Slums, part of which has been adapted for Orion Online. While the situation inside the world's slums is dire right now, all the signs that Davis points to suggest that it's only going to get worse.

The problems with slums are as basic as the ground they're built on. 'Slums begin with bad geology,' Davis explains. The urban poor are often relegated to swamps or unstable hillsides where they face the constant threat of landslides, floods, fires, and disease. While such incidents seem like natural disasters, Davis points out that many of the disasters are anything but natural. Mining and 'cut-and-fill construction' -- an environmentally destructive form of land replacement -- destabilize the ground beneath much of the urban poor from Caracas to Johannesburg. In Hanoi, farmers and fishermen are exposed to so much industrial waste that some of them have begun to use the effluents as a form of fertilizer. In the high-density slums of Manila, landlords frequently commit arson in order to make way for new industrial development.

Rather than creating solutions, the international community has actually had a hand in encouraging these conditions. Davis asserts that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, international organizations founded to help the world's poor, create 'sinister trade-offs that favor export-oriented production, competition, and efficiency at the expense of disaster-vulnerable settlements.' In the quest to meet internationally imposed structural adjustments, governments neglect public works projects like plumbing and social services like health care in favor of free-market economics and military spending.

These policies could spell disaster outside of slums' borders. People living in slums are often unable to find clean water, much less basic health care, leaving the communities to be overrun by disease and waste. Davis points to the global threat of avian flu as a concrete motivation to help the world's poor. 'Today's megaslums,' he says, 'are unprecedented incubators of new and re-emergent diseases that can travel across the world at the speed of a passenger jet.' If helping millions of poor people isn't motivation enough, if left unchecked, the world's dirty secret could become the catalyst for a global pandemic.
-- Bennett Gordon



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