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Rapid urbanization poses major development setback, says UN

Shanghai, China
Shanghai, China
Trent McBride

More than 6 billion people will live in cities by 2050 and the world is not prepared. Development gains could be lost if steps are not taken today to deal with rapid urbanization, says the UN.

The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs World Economic and Social Survey 2013 warns that current trends could increase the number of people living in slums who do not have access to basic needs like sanitation, healthcare and electricity from one billion to three billion.

“Rising inequalities, the food, fuel and financial crises, and the breaching of planetary boundaries have made clear that a mere continuation of current strategies will not suffice to achieve sustainable development after 2015,” say the report authors.

Global population will grow from 7 billion today to 9 billion by 2050. An estimated 80% of urban dwellers will be located in Africa and Asia. More must be done to meet the basic infrastructure and health needs of people living in cities in order to sustain development gains, says the report.

The findings are a part of a closer look at the three drivers of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. Sustainable development was the featured topic at the  Rio+20 conference in Brazil last year. The aim of the event was to determine how to ensure that improving people’s lives is done in a way that can lead to continued advancements for countries, individuals and the planet.

Sustainable development expands the conversation to consider the impacts that development, such as people leaving the countryside for cities, will have on the environment.

UntitledFood security remains a problem. Despite reducing undernourishment from 20% in 1990 to 15% in 2010 there are still as many people affected by food insecurity today (1 billion) as there were in 1970. Food production must increase by an estimated 70% in order to feed the additional 2.3 billion people that will live on the planet in 2050, says the report.

Meeting that demand will need to be done in a way that does not also increase greenhouse gas emissions.

“We anticipate that demand will continue to shift towards more resource intensive products, such as livestock and dairy, thereby exerting pressure on land, water and bio-diversity sources,” said Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, Shamshad Akhtar to Voice of America.

“There has to be efforts to reduce food wastage.  Currently about 32 percent of the food produced globally is wasted.  To reduce wastage, changes will have to take place in the food chain-production, storage, transportation and consumption.”

The topic du jour (aka energy) makes an appearance in the report; cited as one of the foundations for ensuring sustainable development. It calls for solutions to achieving universal access to clean cooking fuels and electricity while ensuring that emissions are minimized. Doing so will require investments from international actors, better national level policies and improved overall cooperation.

“Eradicating extreme poverty, promoting sustainable consumption and production, and managing the planet’s natural resource base for the benefit of all are the overarching challenges of sustainable development,” says UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon in introducing the report.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]