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Wally N'Dow : Creating a New City and New Hope for the Urban Future

June 02, 1996|Robin Wright | Robin Wright, who covers global issues for The Times, is the author of "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam" (Touchstone Books/Simon & Shuster)

WASHINGTON — On some counts, Wally N'Dow is the most unlikely candidate to serve as the world's foremost specialist on cities. The fourth of nine children, he was born 52 years ago in Gambia, Africa's smallest state and among its least developed. The capital, Banjul, is also the world's smallest--with only 40,000 inhabitants today.

As a young man, N'Dow studied veterinary medicine at the University of East Africa in Nairobi and the University of Edinburgh. His first job was at the Gambian ministry of agriculture. His first U.N. job involved drought relief in Africa's Sahel desert. But his career reflects the extraordinary impact of urban trends in the 20th century. When he was born, less than 30% of the world lived in cities. Now, roughly half the world is in cities.

That's only the beginning of the urban challenge. The population of many cities is now expected to double or triple in a decade or two--mainly due to rural migrations and the higher birth rates of the poor. Neither will provide the resources needed to improve or increase urban infrastructures and services to deal with mushrooming numbers.

And those numbers will become almost unlivable within the next 20 years. A single Indian city, Bombay, will have more than 27 million by 2015--10% of the entire U.S. population today. The 10 largest cities will all hold more than 18 million people, the United Nations reports. The greatest urban growth is also in the poorest areas. Already, housing shortages have left 79% of Ethiopians in the capital, Addis Ababa, either homeless or in chronically substandard housing. More than half the populations in the capitals of Colombia and Indonesia face the same plight.

By 2025, 80% of the world's urban population will live in developing countries, the United Nations reports. Urban problems will challenge every major aspect of life, from health to food supplies. And smaller urban settings offer no promise of refuge. Most urban growth occurs in small and medium-sized towns and cities.

N'Dow has increasingly been drawn into the crises of the world's habitats since the mid-1970s--working on food-security issues at the World Food Council and on Third World development at various U.N. agencies. He now travels the world speaking passionately and eloquently on the subject. "We are embarked on one of the most important undertakings of these closing years of the 20th century," he says, "Our urban problems alone are overwhelming nations and we are running out of time. We desperately need new solutions, new policies and new tools."

Habitat II, convening this week in Istanbul, is the last of the major U.N. summits this century. The international gatherings that have focused on global issues--from the environment to women, population to poverty--over the past two decades are a victim of cost-cutting. N'Dow feels this decision is a mistake. "Who is going to talk about and think about population issues or women's rights from now on? NATO?" he said during a recent conversation in Washington.

Married to his high school sweetheart, he is the father of three daughters--who, he says, have also made him a strong advocate of women's rights.

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Question: What are the problems cities face today?

Answer: Take water: Today there are 1.5 billion people who live in water stress and some of them in acute water shock. They don't have water. In 80 countries this is the situation; 40% of all mankind is in that category.

Ten million people are dying every year because of this water crisis. Four million are children--who die because water is contaminated or polluted, because of water-borne disease. In some countries, 98% of all sewage is untreated and just spewed into the rivers and water system. Only 5% of sewage is treated before it is put out into the river and lake system in the developing world.

This is true even in many countries with big land masses, like China. China has almost 25% of the world's population but only 7% of its water and most is in the south. All of northern China is thirsty or dry, posing a great risk for big cities like Beijing. Three hundred cities in China are in water shock or thirsty. It's the same in northern India, Pakistan, Egypt, the Middle East, all of the Sahel [desert] of Africa, the western United States--Colorado, Texas, Arizona--and Mexico City.

If in the past 50 years nations have gone to war over oil, in the next 50 years we are going to go to war over water. We think the crisis point is going to be 15 to 20 years from now unless massive investment comes in.

We must work so that this water stress in the world is relieved. Not one drop of new water is going to come about. We're all still using Abraham's water and the water of the old prophets. Not one drop has been added. [But] human numbers are increasing and industry is expanding and the need to feed people is increasing, especially in dry areas.

Q: What about housing?

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