What are the Main Challenges Cities in the Global South Face When Looking to be Sustainable?

Environment, Long reads
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Problems for the sustainability of emerging cities generally fall in two main interrelated brackets: environmental and economic. The creation of sustainable cities, defined as a city designed taking into account social, economic and environmental impacts, without compromising the ability of future generations from experiencing the same, has thus far been severely neglected by most southern nations. Since they will admit over 90% of world population growth until 2050, this is a major problem. Cities in the global south, encompassing areas such as China, India, Brazil, Africa and South-East Asia, have been growing at an ever-increasing rate. China now has 813 cities and 65 cities with over 1 million people; between 2001 and 2011 India gained 181.5 million people, with cities such as Mumbai having 21,000 people per square kilometre; without any sustainability, Delhi is already struggling to keep its city’s growth in line with population growth- nearly half of the 11,000,000-people living there in 2011 live in slums, and the city’s poverty rate is four times the national average. On top of all this population growth of roughly 2,250,000,000 will, over the next few decades, occur in the south, and population growth rates of over 4% are projected in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

1.0 Infrastructure

First, the most major challenge to sustainability in the global south lies in infrastructure. At the rapid rates of growth seen, most developing nations simply cannot keep up for two reasons: they lack the money or there is no will to use the money. The reality of the global south is not that of an idealistic northern system, but rather one in which the nations which this concerns are fairly undemocratic and corrupt- there are only 5 democracies in the south. As a result, given that most of these developing countries are already very poor, they are unable to pay for much of the infrastructure needed to create a functioning sustainable city. This means that given the need for infrastructure, the onus on the respective governments will be to create any infrastructure whatsoever, rather than trying to choose what is most sustainable, which will result in masses of carbon emissions- to build up southern cities to the same levels as northern ones by 2050, 226 Gt of carbon dioxide will be emitted, over four times the current total usage for infrastructure. Problematically, the finances amid more pressing needs is the primary problem. While Amsterdam could get 75 million Euros in funds for the 2015-2018 green agenda, as a way of transforming an already developed city, most developing nations can spare only just enough to provide the inhabitants with both sanitation and clean water. This lack of funds, which is accentuated by corruption, means that the building of environmentally friendly infrastructure is incredibly difficult. Furthermore, it also damages the credibility of these nations such that international organisations are unwilling to invest in them, and private investors shy away due to a lack of guarantees and the potential to violate sanctions. In only Latin America and the Caribbean, US$23.5 billion needs to be spent to deal with water and sanitation infrastructure as well as waste management infrastructure. Moreover, this same problem is evident in the additional 0.2% of GDP required in order to match sustainable development goal targets, and the $52 trillion in investment required by 2040 in Asia alone in order to meet the demand. Due to all this, eco-friendly infrastructure is hard to create, due to the root cause pertaining to finances and the problems with corruption and political will amongst the elite which amplify the problem.

2.0 Knowledge

Second, miscommunications and misapplications take place due to a lack of knowledge. As a result of the uniqueness of each and every city, and their shared difference to chartered territory in northern cities, the lack of data on many developing southern cities means that previously successful plans without any adaptations are bound to fail. Although universal aspects exist that encompass all cities, there needs to be more data in the south. Even attempts to transform urban science to be applicable to the south fail due to the lack of accurate data and in particular basic information such as the population of many southern cities still remain inaccurate. Therefore, sustainability’s needs need to be tailored too. Thus far, while the vast majority of studies only refer to North America, or to Europe, with a few from China, the real challenges lie in Africa, which is experiencing the fastest rate of urbanisation, as well as the developing nations of Asia and Latin America. For example, a program for reforestation, successful over 1400 times in Japan, failed when attempted in a mining site in Ma’anshan China, in which the locals, seeing no benefit in planting native trees, were unwilling to plant them, and required adaptations such as planting fruit trees on the sites periphery in order to create revenue out of the project, for it to gain any real sort of traction. Particularly, many of the metrics that have been created to create sustainability in the north do not take into account vital differences in the situations such as the vastly different per capita consumption levels which not only vary between the north and the south but also between different southern cities. This problem is heightened through the large blind spots that exist, including critical locations such as the amazon and much of sub-Saharan Africa, and the at best sparse knowledge of local terrain for sustainability projects. This is evident when one looks at the number of citations on ‘Web of Science’, the main forum for such papers, between 2007 and 2017: 78% of papers have a lead author from the global north; only 16% of papers have a first author from the global south, and these are all from China; India and Bangladesh only had 1 paper on each of them; Over 97% of all papers written on the global south and over 60% of all papers on the global south are dominated by authors from the global south. As a result, two problems occur: first, there is a general lack of data on these cities and second, greater importance is placed on the work emanating from the global north, resulting in more tailored urban sustainability being created for the north. While in the best-case scenario this can be occasionally adapted for cities in the global south, in most cases basic adaptation does not work and new solutions have to be created. Problematically, the prevailing theories that exist all are developed in the north, that means that the same issues remain, and the Overton window remains fixed on the north, when the more pressing problem of the south requires it to be shifted that way. Primarily, the implications that exist uniquely to cities that make it so damaging are the enormous significance that exists around the urgency of urbanisation in the global south. Vitally, knowledge is the most important of all the problems that exist regarding the global south’s sustainability, as it underpins any attempt to create sustainability, due to it being the lead cause of both the garnering of funds but also of knowing where to put the funds.

3.0 A Low Carbon Footprint

For many of the new emerging cities, a low carbon footprint is most vital to its sustainability. This entails transportation as well as energy creation. First, for a city to be sustainable it needs to be able to significantly lower its transport related pollution, as that is one of the major causes of pollution in the world. For transport in particular, according to the WHO, low and middle-income counties, particularly in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, suffer far more from transport based pollution due to having inefficient and old vehicles and a lack of efficient public transport as an alternative. Currently, most new cities in the global south have a very inefficient system regarding public transport if it even exists, with frequent delays and a generally unreliable system. So, most people have adopted for cars, as they are seen as much easier to use. Furthermore, this effect is compounded by the relatively inexpensive cost of cars, in which the cheapest car, a Tata Nano, can be bought for the equivalent of £2,500. Although some schemes such as the alternate number scheme has been put forward, in which only cars with certain last numbers on their number-plates can be driven, these largely fail as people then buy multiple cars, thus actually increasing the net pollution. Therefore, a key challenge to sustainability of these cities is their ability to make individuals move off cars through the creation of an efficient public transport system. Similarly, large challenges lie in creating a sustainable energy production system, through the shift from fossil fuels onto renewable energy. At the moment, due to the rapid expansion of most southern cities, fossil fuels, as the most abundant source of energy, has been the main driving force. Therefore, to change this, there needs to be a macro-shift towards renewables in most upcoming cities, but given their cost this is unlikely to happen in the short to medium term future. Even successful systems such as incentives schemes, as used by the Adelaide city council which has succeeded in making Adelaide the world leader in city sustainability, does not work in much of the developing world due to the lack of political capital for this kind of scheme and the lack of affordability.

4.0 The Main Challenges

Overall, the main challenges for emerging cities lie in their ability to efficiently allocate insufficient resources into useful sections of sustainability. Ideally, all of sustainability can be funded, but the reality is only a small percentage can be funded. Most importantly, an attitude shift needs to be created, such that first and foremost more people from the global south try to create sustainable approaches tailored to the south, and second that individuals take some of the responsibility onto themselves in moving away cars and moving away inefficient older technology such as filament lightbulbs and onto LEDs. But, the reality is that all this relies on two key premises: increased knowledge of such problems and a financial incentive, for given the financial positions of most people in developing countries, the cheaper option is likely to take precedence. Secondarily, challenges lie within the government itself, in which it is essential for them to invest in areas of the economy such as infrastructure, renewable energy and public transport in conjunction with emerging information, such that the changing of attitudes means that some sort of alternatives exist.

Leave a Reply