Sustainable development perspective and urbanisation


by M. Nasir Uddin


Bangladesh has experienced one of the highest rates of urbanisation in the last few decades. Urban population has grown at an annual rate of about 3.9 per cent during 1960-1970, 4.0 per cent during 1970-1980, 3.3 per cent during 1980-1990, and 3.8 per cent during 1991-2001, while rural population has grown at a rate of 1.04 per cent during 1991-2001. With the increasing growth rate of urban population the level of urbanisation in Bangladesh is also increasing. Because of the large national population size the absolute size of urban population is large at 28.8 million as of January 2001. There is a general view that urbanisation and economic development are positively related. But this generalisation does not match with the unsatisfactory economic condition of Bangladesh. Many Asian countries with higher economic growth have low level of urbanisation than Bangladesh.

Urbanisation is conventionally defined as the process of growth in the urban population. Rapid urbanisation in terms of rising share of population in urban areas is a relatively recent phenomenon in developing Asia. Asian urbanisation was rather slow in 1960s and 1970s but appears to have accelerated with the marked dynamism of many economies in the region in the 1980s for instance, while Africa was urbanising at an annual rate of about 1.5 per cent and Latin America at below 1 per cent, Asia’s urbanisation level was rising by over 2 per cent per annum during that decade.

The urban population in the Asian and Pacific region between 1991 and 2020 is expected to rise from 991 million to 2.44 billion. This means an additional 1.4 billion people will be living in the urban centres of Asia. The manner and rapidity with which urban growth is taking place in developing Asia are causing great concern among planners, architects, environmental scientists and decision-makers. The central issue is the sustainability of urban systems, both as sustainable habitats for mankind and in terms of their ecological and environmental support systems.

A salient characteristic of urban systems in developing countries is the concentration of urban population and economic activity in one or a few large cities. Henderson observes that urban concentration is, in fact, the most acute in Asia, and considers this phenomenon to be a bigger problem than the speed of urbanisation itself. The percentage of a country’s urban population residing in the large urban agglomeration, is known as its primate city. In South Asia, Bangladesh has the highest urban population (36 per cent) followed by Myanmar (31 per cent) and Pakistan has 20 per cent. In Southeast Asia urban population concentration is the highest in Thailand at 54 per cent followed by Philippines and Vietnam.

Dhaka, the primate city, and the other metropolitan areas of Chittagong, Khulna and Rajshahi dominate the urban system in Bangladesh. Dhaka itself contains more than one-third of the total urban population and the four largest cities together account for over half of the total. Dhaka’s population has grown at an annual rate of about 15.51 per cent during 1961-1974, 14.89 per cent during 1974-1981, 13.02 per cent during 1981-1991, and 8.6 per cent during 1991-2001. It is depicted from the table below that rate of urbanisation of primate city is about three times higher than the other cities.

Components of Urbanisation: Urbanisation is a continuous and inevitable process. Significant growth of the urban population is the direct result of two major factors: natural increase of the urban population and rural-urban migration.

Natural factors: It is already mentioned that 23.39 percent of people live in the urban areas. Thus the bulk of urban growth in Bangladesh is attributed to the natural increase of urban population. K. Hope (1986) observes that key demographic factors that will bring about future natural urban population growth in the Third World are three-fold. First is the expected and counting drop in mortality levels, which will in turns result in a substantial increase in life expectancy. These will largely offset fertility decline. The second factor is the very high proportion of children and youth in the general population. The third and final factor is time itself. These demographic and time factors are quite visible in the urbanisation process of Bangladesh. In the year 1981 the population of Dhaka city was 3.43, million while in 2001 the population of Dhaka city has reached 9.9 million which is three times the population of 1981.

Migration factors: Migration is the other important determinant of urban population growth. Basically, there are two models of the migration process. In the first, migration is regarded as a purposeful and rational search for a better place to live in and work. In the second, migration is viewed as a response to conditions, which push the migrants into moving, perhaps without a rational weighing of alternatives. Empirical evidence suggests that the primary determining factor of migration is economic betterment. People migrate from rural to urban areas in response to perceived differences in economic opportunities between their original location and their final destination. Mills (1991) states that the attraction of cities are not restricted to activities for profit sectors.

In most developing countries the best educational and cultural institution and social service systems are located there. Thus the expectation of better education facilities, and health facilities for family also are major reasons for migration to the urban areas. In Bangladesh both ‘pull’ and ‘push’ factors are dominantly influencing the rural to urban migration. People migrate to urban centre for employment and for higher income.

On the other hand labour-saturated rural agriculture sector could not absorb the increasing number of labour force. Thus poverty and unemployment cause migration from rural to urban areas. The unemployed people migrate to urban areas without knowing what facilities are waiting there for them. Natural calamities like floods, famines and tornadoes also accelerate rural-urban migration in Bangladesh. After calamity people become helpless because of lack of food, shelter and cloths, which compel them to migrate from rural to urban.

Consequences of Rapid Urbanisation: Until a few years ago economists, sociologists and social planners alike regarded urbanisation, as being positively associated with higher productivity and industrialisation. Proponents of the thesis that large cities have a positive role in development, pointed to the advantages that firms or businesses receive from access to large markets for their products as well as for labour and other inputs. However, in contrast to this view it is now clear that there are negative effects and some costs are associated with the concentration of economic activity and population in the urban areas. The over-urbanisation is associated with widespread unemployment and underemployment in addition to all the problems of lack of housing and access to urban services.

Bangladesh enjoys both positive and negative impact of urbanisation. Although Bangladesh is not an industrialised country. Yet majority of its industries are located in urban areas. Manufacturing plants garments, textiles, pharmaceuticals and other small industries are mainly located in major cities in general and Dhaka in particular. In this context cities are playing a vital role in economic growth. On the other hand deterioration of urban and surrounding physical and ecological environment is the result of unplanned and unguided industrial location in the city. Dhaka city is growing at an exceptionally rapid rate mainly due to rural-urban migration, but also through natural increase of native urban population.

The capacity of urban centre to properly absorb the increasing numbers of people, being mostly poor, is severely challenged. Cities in general and Dhaka in particular suffer from shortage of basic infrastructure and services such as water supply, sanitation, solid waste disposal and transport. The problem is not only of shortage, but also of unequal distribution, with much of its impact absorbed by low income and poorer section of the urban population. Infrastructure inadequacies and inequitable distribution are due to the absence of efficient and ineffective planning and management. This has meant service leakage and financial losses on a large scale. Such urbanisations are manifest in mass poverty, gross inequality, high unemployment, underemployment, overcrowded housing, proliferation of slums and squatters, insufficient social services, violence, crimes, and environmental degradation.

Dhaka city could not meet the water demand of its residents. Shortages of water supply are normal phenomena. Access to safe drinking water is specially scarce for the urban poor. Even piped water could not be ensured as safe drinking water. Water pollution in urban areas is a great concern for the human health. Direct discharge of untreated industrial effluent, sewerage and dumping of solid waste into water bodies like rivers and canals is going on unabated. Much of the thousands of tons of solid wastes and liquid generated by 10 million people of Dhaka city are dumped into the Buriganga river. Human consumption of the Buriganga’s water is beyond question.

In the dry season no living organism can survive in Buriganga. Buriganga is now considered to be a dead river. According to the Department of Environment (DOE), every day 15,800 cubic litres of wastes from Hazaribagh tanneries 3500 cubic litres of wastes from industrial areas and 2,700 cubic litres of wastes from other sources are being thrown into the Buriganga. From the factories at Hazaribagh tannery area, every day, 15,000 cubic litres of liquid wastes, 19 tons of solid wastes and 7.5 tons of Biological Oxygen Demand go into the Buriganaga. Similar situation is seen in the Karnafuli river at Chittagong, the Rupsha at Khulna, and the Surma at Sylhet.

Solid waste management services in many Asian cities are seriously deficient and progressively deteriorating. Dhaka city generates about 33000 tons of solid waste every day but the city corporation can collect only 20 per cent of the solid waste a day. Open dumping of the uncollected solid waste on street, canal, drain and open spaces between houses is normal phenomenon. This constitutes a serious environmental problem particularly when it is compounded by inadequate drainage and sanitation. Uncollected wastes act as a harbour of insects and many diseases.

Earlier air pollution was not a serious urban environmental problem. But now poor quality of air in major cities has become a matter of big concern, Dhaka being the worst affected. In Dhaka city air pollution is worsening rapidly due to fast increase in vehicle imports and use, particularly the two-stroke engine vehicles along with old vehicles. Although the total number of vehicles in the city of Dhaka are not large relative to the human population yet vehicle and fuel quality are a major concern in Dhaka city.

Ambient sulphur dioxide levels are nearly five times of the national standards in commercial areas, and nearly 10 times above the WHO (World Health Organisation) guidelines. Lead levels in Dhaka are also high by world standards, up to five times of recommended WHO guidelines. In the worse seasons of the year, which correspond to the low rainfall months, lead levels in Dhaka are higher than Bombay or Mexico City. These high levels of pollutants are associated with both premature mortality (death from respiratory illness and cardio-vascular disease) and increased sickness (increased prevalence of chronic obstructive lung disease, especially bronchitis, and increased respiratory tract infections). High levels of atmospheric lead contribute to both hypertension and neurological damage in adults, and measurable IQ loss in children.

Sound pollution has become a hazard of urban life. Sound pollution has serious negative impact on human health. A specialist states that the listening capacity of those living in Dhaka city continuously for ten years is impaired. From five to seven per cent patients are affected with permanent deafness caused by the almost round the clock high level of noise around them. Hydraulic horn sounded by buses and trucks is the most harmful among the sources of noise in daily life. Survey of Department of Geography and Environment of Jahangirnagar University reveals that minimum and maximum noise level at Malibagh, Baglamotor, Mouchak, Kakrail, Shahbagh, Shantinagar and Hotel Sheraton are 73.5 decibel to 83.5, 74 decibel to 84, 75 decibel to 85, 74 decibel to 83, 74 decibel to 84, 74 decibel to 82, 72 decibel to 78, and 70 decibel to 82 respectively. According to current standard, the highest acceptable level of sound in residential and commercial area is 45db and 70db respectively.

Source: The Independent, Dhaka, March 20, 2002

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