CITIES

Splitting at the seams

Brian D. Johnson August 20 1984
CITIES

Splitting at the seams

Brian D. Johnson August 20 1984

Splitting at the seams

CITIES

Brian D. Johnson

Smothering under a permanent layer of smog and ringed with slums, Mexico City is a graphic example of an overcrowded metropolis starting to split at the seams. Breathing its foul air for a day is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes, according to environmental experts. At the city dump thousands of people eke out a living by sifting through mounds of rubbish for salvageable items. They even have an unofficial scavengers’ union to guard their rotting turf. But each day the city

generates 6,000 tons of garbage that never even makes it to the dump because the community is not equipped to collect it. With a population of 17 million, projected to rise to 26 million by the turn of the century, Mexico City this year is overtaking Tokyo as the largest urban centre on the planet. As such, it was an appropriate setting for the delegations from 140 nations who assembled there last week for a United Nations international conference on population.

Although the 1,200 delegates gathered to consider the crisis of an overcrowded world, their discussions were virtually overshadowed by a ritual round of ideological posturing from the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The politics of popula-

tion control have changed dramatically since the UN staged its first world conference on the issue 10 years ago in Bucharest. Then, the Socialist countries vehemently argued that international family planning programs were part of a capitalist plot to subdue the Third World. In their place the Eastern Bloc promoted economic development as the only solution for overcrowded, povertystricken countries.

But those attitudes have changed, and by last week almost all the delegates shared a consensus that both family planning and economic development are

essential to population control. Still, the United States—sounding an echo of the economic determinism that the Soviets promoted at Bucharest a decade ago—insisted that free-market capitalism is the best form of population control. And while most countries, including Canada, promoted a no-strings, nonpartisan approach to aid, Washington angered many delegates by proposing to cut aid to family planning projects that include abortion.

Despite the tone of its statements, the United States still provides 44 per cent of the world’s family planning financing—this year its contribution stands at a record high of $240 million—and the Reagan administration plans to raise it again next year. For its part, Canada

will spend $36.3 million this year for population planning projects. While refraining from attacking the U.S. position publicly, Canada’s 14-member delegation stressed that aid recipients should have the right “to develop their own national policies” on family planning. The U.S. delegation was the only one to promote its position with a news conference. Delegation chief James Buckley, president of Radio Free Europe, which broadcasts U.S. programming into Eastern Europe, said his government “rejects the analysis of gloom, doom and scarcity—that we are caught up in a global population crisis.”

Indeed, in the decade since the Bucharest conference the rate of the world’s population growth has dropped to 1.7 per cent from two per cent. But the figure is deceiving, partly because much of the decrease has occurred in China, where draconian birth-control measures have almost frozen the population at slightly above the one-billion mark. As well, while the overall rate of increase has dropped, the actual growth of population is still alarming. The World Bank predicted that the world’s current population of 4.7 billion will rise to six billion by the year 2000 and to 8.3 billion by 2025. Even if those forecasts are inaccurate, the problem is no longer a simple numbers game; it has become inextricably linked to the crisis of unbridled urban development.

In the 1950s only six urban centres —New York, Paris, London, Toyko, Buenos Aires and Shanghai —had more than five million inhabitants. Now there are 34 such cities, the majority of them in the developing world—megacities swollen by an influx of unemployed, uneducated peasants from rural regions. Lacking the resources to cope with unrestrained growth, those agglomerations have been virtually overwhelmed by social problems: sprawling slums, congested traffic, choking pollution, inadequate sewage systems, water shortages, overcrowded schools and overburdened utilities.

In Cairo the homes of a third of the 12 million inhabitants have no sewers connected to them. In Calcutta about 70 per cent of the 10.2 million residents live in one-room houses and roughly 600,000 live homeless on the streets. At the same time, Mexico City is collapsing under the

weight of its population. Built on a dried-up lake bed, the city pumps one billion gallons of water a day from natural wells, and depletion of the subsoil has caused parts of the city to sink in some places by as much as 30 feet. Indeed, the visual impact of the teeming capital—which Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes has called “the city forever spreading like a creeping blot”—had a jarring impact on many conference delegates. Said Liberal Senator Lorna Marsden, head of the Canadian delegation: “I am in a state of shock over what is happening in that city. It was a very courageous act by the Mexican government to invite us there.”

Marsden said that ultimately the conference’s main impact will not appear in UN programs but in the actions of member states after the delegates report to their individual governments. Most delegations included high-ranking government officials, she explained, and Canada’s would have had a minister at its head if there had not been an election under way. The Canadian delegation, which included officials from a crosssection of government departments and two nongovernment members, played a “modest but crucial” role at the conference, said Marsden. It argued strongly that “status-of-women issues not be lumped together with fertility and family issues” and supported moves to tie environmental conservation and health care to population problems.

Although government delegates including Marsden were reluctant to criticize the controversial U.S. stance, representatives of nongovernment organizations (NGOs) in the Canadian delegation were more outspoken. Marilyn Wilson, an observer from the Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada (PPFC), interpreted the position on abortion as “possibly a lot of posturing to the right-to-life movement in the States. I do not think this would have happened if there had not been an election coming up.”

Any major UN conference serves as a world stage for a bizarre combination of diplomatic and political posturing, and the week-long population meeting was no exception. Said Rafael Salas, a UN population specialist who served as the conference’s secretary-general: “We expect controversy.” Still, as the 1,200 delegates, watched by 800 journalists, scored the last of their political points during the closing sessions early this week, the city around them was a living reminder of the enormity of the problem at hand. During every day of the deliberations roughly 1,000 more peasants streamed from the countryside into Mexico City’s slums to start a new life with no future.

Ron Buchanan