Slum Ecology

The United Nations
estimates that
more than a billion people currently live in dire urban
. 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,
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
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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