Calling for Environmental Health Solutions in Cities

Children sorting through a local landfill in Patiala, India. A 2010 study estimated that there are approximately 1.5 million waste pickers in India, the majority of whom are women. Photo: Kerry Constabile, 2011


By Kerry Constabile

Half of the world’s children and adolescents live in urban areas. As the world urbanizes, people and particularly children are faced with increasingly unhealthy communities. Environmental health hazards – ranging from air pollution, garbage and inadequate sanitation – are problematic for the poorest city dwellers who persist under the radar, neglected by media, and many health and urban planning efforts.

Today, one city dweller in three lives in slum conditions – by 2020, a staggering 1.4 billion people will be living in slums and informal settlements. The challenges and living conditions in slums are daunting for governments, city authorities and communities themselves. One increasingly critical method to transform slums into thriving communities is to empower residents to develop solutions to urban environmental health hazards. Communities must be seen as the solution to environmental degradation and urbanization.

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Cities are hotbeds of risks and solutions

The unplanned nature of slums and their fragile, informal infrastructure make them especially vulnerable to disasters and water-borne diseases such as cholera. When overcrowded settlements are hit by natural disasters, huge fatalities may ensue – as in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2011 floods in Rio de Janeiro. This past May, one of Nairobi’s largest slums, Mathare, was hit with intense rainfall and floods that displaced thousands and caused critical water shortages. Burst pipes in the nearby Sasumua Dam left most of Nairobi’s slums without clean water for at least a week.

Climate change will increase these hazards, but opportunities do exist to protect children living in urban areas. A first step is to raise global awareness about these conditions and the positive solutions that lie within them. Slums are consistently labeled as undesirable and dangerous places, an image that does not give justice to the powerful social cohesion, diversity and innovations thriving within them.

Communities often devise ways to improve their own health and economic opportunities and young people are central to many such efforts. For example, boys and girls involved in Kibera’s Youth Reform Program turned a neighborhood garbage dump into their village’s first organic farm. Governments can contribute by scaling up these kinds of community-driven initiatives. They can also equip communities with systems that allow residents to report hazards – such as clogged drains, trash that hasn’t been picked up or impending floods – using SMS. In Uganda, UNICEF-supported Ureport does just this.

Air pollution and household waste beg increased focus and innovative partnerships

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), pneumonia, the cause of 1.4 million deaths in children worldwide per year, is integrally linked to indoor and outdoor air pollution. In 2010, Jonathan Grigg found that children who live in a home within 100 meters of a main road could be as much as 65% more likely than others to develop pneumonia.

These risks are going to increase as cities and the numbers of cars within them grow.  Last year, the WHO released data revealing that air pollution is at unprecedented levels in cities, posing worldwide risks for children. The WHO estimates more than 2 million people die every year from breathing chemicals attached to tiny particles in air pollution. In 2004 an estimated 1.15 million people died prematurely due to outdoor air pollution – these numbers keep increasing, reaching 1.34 million in 2008, as more people live in cities and air pollution worsens.

Problems as big as these require innovative partnerships that bring together communities, academia, the private sector and government. Such collaboration fosters many possible solutions such as investment in smart infrastructure, child-centered construction and vehicles that use cleaner fuels and meet government emission standards (which need to be applied in cities globally).

Similar to urban air pollution, household waste management is a growing crisis that demands greater attention and collaboration on all fronts. In many slums around the world, children live amid garbage. Nairobi’s Korogocho slum is home to approximately 120,000 people packed into one square kilometer who live adjacent to the city’s largest landfill. With little garbage pickup, Korogocho’s streets are lined with mounds of garbage five feet high, alongside markets and children playing.

A challenge in many cities around the world is that thousands of children and adolescents work as waste-pickers in garbage dumps to make a daily living. In Ecuador, children were seen working in dumps to supplement their family’s income, preventing them from attending school. With support from UNICEF, Ecuador worked to eliminate the practice and in 2011, the country was declared free of child labor in garbage dumps. Problems like these require investment and active teamwork with communities themselves to find alternatives.

A world of rapidly growing cities and towns cannot be healthy, prosperous, or sustainable, if the conditions that exist in the poorest parts of cities are neglected. The world also needs to recognize that communities and young people themselves are innovating problem-solvers and part of the answer to improving cities. Urbanization scenarios do not have to be all doom and gloom – sometimes simple community-driven solutions, adopted at all levels, can save the lives of numerous children.


Kerry Constabile is an urban programming specialist at UNICEF. The views expressed in this blog are hers and do not necessarily represent UNICEF’s positions.


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