- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

The explosive growth of cities around the world especially the rise of huge, nation-sized Third World metropolises has U.S. scientists and officials worried.

They're troubled by the prospect that these "megacities" defined as places with more than 10 million people will increasingly serve as incubators of disease, economic disruptions and endless political crises.

Importantly, authorities fear sprawling Third World cities that lack clean water, sewage disposal, health care and adequate municipal services will swell the already large, continuing flow of illegal immigrants seeking better lives in the United States.

There is ample evidence that desperate migrants will sell themselves into servitude or risk their lives to enter developed countries.

There are the recent accounts of 58 Chinese found suffocated in a truck in Dover, England; the death of Chinese migrants found in a cargo container at the port of Seattle; the discovery of illegal immigrants forced into servitude in New York and California sweatshops; and official reports that as many as 50,000 women and girls are smuggled into the United States each year to serve the sex trade.

The wonder is that so many of the rural poor in developing nations are so misinformed, frustrated and gullible that they believe false rumors the city will provide them with good jobs, schooling, fewer hardships and a higher standard of living.

But they do. And people keep crowding into places like Sao Paulo, Brazil (more than 16 million); Bombay (now officially called Mumbai), India (more than 15 million); and Lagos, Nigeria (more than 11 million).

It's expected that by 2015, Shanghai will harbor more than 23 million people; Jakarta, Indonesia, 21 million; Sao Paulo and Karachi, Pakistan, 20 million each; Beijing, 19 million; and Mexico City, 18.8 million.

"The cities are magnets, and the attraction is hope," says urban specialist George Bugliarello, chancellor of the Polytechnic University of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a leading member of the National Research Council.

Third world explosion

Today, the Third World has 10 of the world's 15 megacities. In just 14 years, as more children are born and impoverished peasants continue to abandon the countryside, developing nations will harbor 22 of the globe's 26 really huge metropolitan areas.

American officials contend that, as a humanitarian nation, the United States must help ballooning Third World cities cope. They explain that it's in the country's self-interest to do so. Indeed, many consider it a matter of national security.

So the United States is undertaking new efforts to provide counsel and expertise to foreign governments even though the speed with which the megacities have grown and the sheer size of the phenomenon have caused some to question how much good that can do.

From 1975 to 1995, the population of Bombay grew nearly 121 percent to 15,138,000. It is expected to grow to 26,218,000 in the next 15 years a 73 percent rate of increase that will give it a population larger than the combined populations of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Likewise, between 1975 and 1995, the number of Lagos' inhabitants grew 211 percent to 10,287,000. That number is expected to increase to 24,640,000 by 2015, a 139 percent rate of increase.

In 1970, 80 percent of the populations of developing countries lived in rural areas, where the living may have been frugal and hard, but the air was fresh, the water relatively clean and disease spread comparatively slowly. Now just about half of the world's population resides in the countryside.

Some 2.5 billion people now live in cities. It's predicted that in 30 years, the number of city dwellers will double to 5 billion, with 70 percent in cities of the developing world.

David Hales of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) stresses the speed of city growth when he muses, "I have a son 8 years old. When he was born, there were more people living in cities of the world than on the entire planet when my father was born in 1911."

Many hundreds of thousands of those living in vast areas of Bombay, Jakarta, Karachi, Mexico City and similar spots live where packed, narrow streets have open sewers. Or no sewers.

It's common in such places for large families to live without water or electricity in houses made of scrap pillaged from dumps and to sleep on dirt floors. In such places, toddlers play in piles of filth, breathing toxic air and swatting insects. Such poorly managed cities with scant municipal services become incubators of disease.

Dawning realization

The news media and charitable organizations have made Americans aware these conditions exist. But as Mr. Bugliarello says, Americans are "just beginning to understand that such conditions are destabilizing, and that what happens in one huge foreign city can directly affect them."

Mr. Bugliarello and others point out that tuberculosis, cholera and AIDS spread quickly in packed megacities and from there to the developed world. They say that within hours, air travelers or immigrants can transport contagion to the United States.

In a written statement, J. Brian Atwood, administrator of USAID, says that as cities of the developing world expand, "There is the danger that unmanaged urban growth will lead to economic, social and environmental crises. This is a matter of concern to developing and developed countries alike."

And Mr. Hales, head of USAID's Global Environment Center, puts it this way: "Look at the more obvious security issue first. There are many cities where living conditions are unbearable. Two-thirds of Africa's urban population lacks clean water and two of five have no access to sanitary facilities. One third of those in Asia have no clean water and two-thirds lack sanitary facilities. Just one in four kids born in urban areas of developing countries receives a high school education. Functional illiteracy is high.

"I'm not an alarmist. But when you have a large number of people whose dominant characteristic is poverty and lack of hope, you have a large population that's ripe for civil unrest."

U.S. officials contend the mountains of untreated human waste and industrial discharges from megacities pose a contamination threat, and already there is evidence of widespread air pollution from tens of millions of residences and factories burning soft coal.

"Ozone depletion and global warming are worsened by megacities, but the effects are not limited to those cities. It's not just a matter of national security, it's a global problem," says Vassar College's Jill Schneiderman. Miss Schneiderman is a professor of geology and geography and editor of "The Earth Around Us," a new study of environmental issues.

To cope with some of the many problems megacities face, USAID has an Urbanization Task Force that, for a few years, has been promoting and funding a program called Making Cities Work. The agency sends specialists to Third World nations to train officials in city management, public health, economic growth and, among other things, disaster preparedness and recovery.

"We encourage mayors and others to commit to democratic values. We urge the participation of civil society in problem-solving because that's how people get needs met," Mr. Hales says.

Specialists attack problem

At the spring meeting of the 35,000-member American Geophysical Union in the District of Columbia, specialists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey and Mr. Bugliarello outlined their initiatives for dealing with megacity development.

Los Alamos, for example, runs a project called the Urban Security Initiative. It consists of a team of environmental engineers, geologists, software designers, natural-hazards specialists, mathematicians, hydrologists, civil engineers and transportation experts, among others.

They are creating sophisticated computer software that presents city officials with graphic simulations to utilize when formulating expansion plans and for developing and testing responses to natural and man-made crises. The gamelike simulations show the possible effects of various calamities and possible interventions.

Project director Greg A. Valentine gives an example. He says his team used Dallas as a model to show how airborne toxic pollutants from a truck tanker crash, terrorist attack or other chemical accident would circulate and spread through city corridors.

The simulation demonstrated how cars driven through plumes of pollution spread the effects for miles into suburbs and airports. So for the first time, officials around the world can observe the consequences of such a disaster, spot places where help might be most needed or hardest to reach and form strategies for avoiding confusion and duplication of effort.

Some developing cities sit in earthquake-prone areas, or are near volcanoes. Thus the team used nuclear-test data and historic records to produce action simulations of what happens during quakes and eruptions. Even now officials in Naples, Italy, are using the Los Alamos software to plan against the day when Mt. Vesuvius again turns ornery.

For its part, the U.S. Geological Survey runs the Urban Dynamics Project, which makes available its mapping expertise and ability to trace the effect on the land of metro growth. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency is working with the State Department overseas to help foreign officials see the need for building codes. Importantly, FEMA is helping those officials to understand the kinds of laws and policies necessary to protect residents.

In all, there are 19 U.S. agencies toiling to find ways to cope with the rise of megacities. It's a challenge all concede is huge, but one that the USAID's Mr. Hales insists "is not intractable."

However, Miss Schneiderman, the Vassar professor, puts that appraisal in context. She says, "You've got to be hopeful. If we can't believe we can make constructive change, where are we? We might just as well lie down and quit now."

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