Why millions of people choose to live in urban slums

About one-third of the urban population in developing countries are slum dwellers.

There is something viscerally repulsive about urban poverty: the stench of open sewers, the choking smoke of smoldering trash heaps, the pools of fetid drinking water filmed with the rainbow color of chemical spills. It makes poverty in the countryside seem almost Arcadian by comparison. The rural poor may lack nutrition, health care, education, and infrastructure; still, they do the backbreaking work of tending farms in settings that not only are more bucolic, but also represent the condition of most of humanity for most of history. With life so squalid in urban slums, why would anyone want to move there?

Because slums are better than the alternative. Most people who’ve experienced both rural and urban poverty choose to stay in slums rather than move back to the countryside. For all the real horrors of slum existence today, it still usually beats staying in a village.

Start with the simple reason that most people leave the countryside: money. Moving to cities makes economic sense — rich countries are urbanized countries, and rich people are predominantly town and city dwellers. Just 600 cities worldwide account for 60 percent of global economic output, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Slum dwellers may be at the bottom of the urban heap, but most are better off than their rural counterparts.

Although about half the world’s population is urban, only a quarter of those living on less than a dollar a day live in urban areas. In Brazil, for example, where the word “poor” conjures images of Rio’s vertiginous favelas … only 5 percent of the urban population is classified as extremely poor, compared with 25 percent of those living in rural areas.

But is it much of a life, eking out an existence in today’s urban squalor? Our image of modern slums comes from films like Slumdog Millionaire, portraits of India’s urban underclass not all that far removed from the horrifying picture of 19th-century industrialization in Charles Dickens’s novels about the misery and violence of London’s slum dwellers. But slum living today, for all its failings, is markedly better than it was in Dickens’s time.

For one thing, urban quality of life now involves a lot more actual living. Through most of history, death rates in cities were so high that urban areas only maintained population levels through constant migration from the countryside. In Dickensian Manchester, for instance, the average life expectancy was just 25 yearsAcross the world today, thanks to vaccines and underground sewage systems, average life expectancies in big cities are considerably higher than those in the countryside; in sub-Saharan Africa, cities with a population over 1 million have had infant mortality rates one-third lower than those in rural areas. In fact, most of today’s urban population growth comes not from waves of villagers moving to the city, but city folks having kids and living longer.

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Devastating effect of higher food prices on developing nations

As last month’s World Population Day reminded us, we have over 7 billion mouths to feed. And we have to make a place at the table for the 9 million-plus projected by 2050. To do so, we’ll have to ramp up food production by 70 percent, according to United Nations estimates.

In 2011, world food prices went up by some 37 percent during the Russian wheat crisis, driving another 44 million people into poverty, according to the World Bank. This year, the effects of drought may signal more of the same for food prices in coming months.

And climate scientists predict extreme weather events with the potential to disrupt the food supply – including floods and droughts – will be far more common in the coming years.

Changing demographics are also putting new strains on our food supply, as millions of “up and coming” consumers in places like India and China buy more milk and meat to reflect newly middle class tastes, as chronicled in the Journal of Nutrition. In just this decade, there will be a 30 percent increase in global demand for milk, Tetra Pak’s own dairy index forecasts.

Furthermore, food crops and farmland are increasingly being diverted into biofuel production around the globe, making commodity crops scarcer and more expensive.

Price spikes hurt people in developing nations more, simply because they spend a much higher fraction of their incomes on food.  Whereas U.S. households spend about 6 percent of their total expenditures on food, this compares with 35 percent in India and 45 percent in Kenya. As a result, a major uptick in food prices in developing parts of the world is beyond devastating — it’s destabilizing.

Revolutionary toilets to provide safe sanitation

A toilet that uses little or no water is expected to improve sanitation in the developing world. Last year the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, named after the Microsoft co-founder and his wife, gave grants to eight universities around the world to help create a hygienic toilet that is safe and affordable and can transform waste into energy.

About 2.6 billion people – or 40 per cent of world’s population mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia – lack access to safe sanitation and are forced to defecate in the open.

Open defecation leads to sanitation problems that cause 1.5 million children under five to die each year.

The winner of the Reinvent the Toilet fair was a team from the California Institute of Technology. Professor Michael Hoffman’s design toilet is solar powered, generating hydrogen gas and electricity [EPA]

The designs needed to operate at a cost of no more than five cents a day and would ideally capture energy or other resources.

Other designs submitted included a lavatory that used microwave energy to turn human waste into electricity. Another turned excrement into charcoal, while a third used urine for flushing.