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People move on a street of Marina in Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja - RC1AA6282BF0
Africa in focus

Figures of the week: Unique challenges facing African urbanization

The World Bank’s recent report, “Which Way to Livable and Productive Cities? A Road Map for Sub-Saharan Africa,” unearths the complexity and challenges unique to sub-Saharan Africa’s urbanization journey. For starters, urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa, as the report posits, has simply not provided the same economic growth experienced by other regions of the world.

Author

Nirav Patel

Former Research Analyst - Global Economy and Development

Figure 1 below demonstrates this polarity. While there was a consistent pattern of growth in GDP per capita for East Asian countries as their share of urban population grew between 1990 and 2016, the sub-Saharan African story is a mixed bag: There’s no clear pattern. On one side, countries like Nigeria and Ghana have seen strong growth in GDP along with higher shares of urban populations, and on the other, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and Guinea-Bissau have experienced a decline in GDP while also experiencing increases in urban population.

The authors attribute this phenomenon in part to most sub-Saharan African countries failing to reallocate economic activity from the agricultural sector toward the more productive industrial and service sectors, resulting in urbanization without growth.

Figure 1: East Asia vs. sub-Saharan Africa, urbanization and GDP per capita between 1990 and 2016

Figure 1: East Asia vs. sub-Saharan Africa, urbanization and GDP per capita between 1990 and 2016

Source: Hommann, K. and Lall, S.V., 2019. Which Way to Livable and Productive Cities? A Road Map for Sub-Saharan Africa. World Bank.

Another challenging element of African urbanization presented in the report is the increasing vulnerability of the urban population to climate change. Specifically, the report establishes that fast-growing urban areas in low-elevation coastal zones (LECZs) are particularly at risk from climate change. For example, the densely populated Niger Delta is precariously exposed to sea level rise, storm surges, erosion, and land subsidence. Seasonal cyclones and tropical storms regularly affect cities along the southeastern coast of the Indian Ocean, most recently impacting Madagascar and Mozambique, causing severe damage and losses.

Figure 2 shows a sustained increase in the number of people living in these vulnerable zones over time. According to the report, the population living in LECZs will increase from 4 million in 2000 to an estimated 26 million by 2030 and then 110 million by 2060.

Figure 2: Projected rise of urban population living in low-elevation coastal zones (LECZs)

Figure 2: Projected rise of urban population living in low-elevation coastal zones (LECZs)

Source: Hommann, K. and Lall, S.V., 2019. Which Way to Livable and Productive Cities? A Road Map for Sub-Saharan Africa. World Bank.

The report offers three recommendations for mitigating the above and additional challenges presented in the report. First, governments should empower land markets to drive urban economic growth and promote economic density. Second, cities should strengthen urban planning and regulation to make market-driven growth and coordinated investments possible. Third, there should be a focus on financing public assets and infrastructure investments to promote urban agglomeration effects from improved efficiency and connectivity while guarding against mitigating vulnerabilities and negative externalities.

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