Main Elements of the Brown Agenda

Water Supply

Access to safe water and sanitation are two of the most urgent problems associated with the urban environment in the developing world. Globally, 1.1 billion people do not have access to adequate water supplies and more than double that figure – 2.4 billion – lack adequate sanitation facilities. These problems are particularly acute for the urban poor in many cities. For instance, UN HABITAT estimates that the number of African urban dwellers without access to adequate water provision is between 100 and 150 million or 35–40% of the population. Even where water is available, it may only run for a few hours a day via a pipe shared by hundreds of households. In Rajkot, India, a city with a population of 600 000, for example, piped water runs for only 20 min each day. Where water supplies are inadequate or unreliable, people are forced to purchase water, which can be financially devastating. In Mumbai, for example, the urban poor are often forced to buy water from informal vendors who may charge as much as forty times more per liter than the piped connections enjoyed by the wealthier households. Furthermore, access to water does not mean it is safe to drink. Wastewater treatment is so inadequate in many cities that the problem of contaminated water is an enormous environmental and health burden. Of India’s 3700 cities and large towns, only 17 have full wastewater treatment facilities. As a result, the vast majority of wastewater is dumped into rivers, lakes, and coastal waters without treatment. This of course highlights one of the many linkages between the brown agenda and the health burden of the urban poor in cities of the global South.


Commanding less attention than water supply, the situation with regard to sanitation is nevertheless abysmal in most cities of the developing world, and again Africa suffers most of all. In cities such as Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Kigali, Brazzaville, and Harare, more than 90% of the population live in homes with no connection to a sewer. Worse still, the city of Lagos – the largest city in Sub-Saharan Africa with a population of over 13 million – has literally lost infrastructure over recent decades and now less than 1% of households is linked to a closed sewer system, this proportion largely consisting of hotels and wealthy compounds. Kinshasa, with a population approaching 10 million has no waterborne sewerage system at all. In these cities, pit and bucket latrines are often shared between hundreds or thousands of people, and open defecation is common. The situation in many parts of Asia is not much better, with sewer connections in Manila at below 10% and a study of slums in India, finding, in one case, just 19 latrines for 102 000 people. In some cities, communal toilet blocks for low income areas have become a focus of community organized activity, with successful examples from organized slum and pavement dwellers in Mumbai having inspired similar initiatives elsewhere. The Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi used community participation and self help strategies to help low income households in informal settlements acquire sewerage connections. However, while sanitation is an issue on which local community mobilization can bring about substantial improvements, it does of course crucially depend on connections into wider infrastructure for water supply and sewerage.

Solid and Hazardous Waste Management

Cities generate huge amounts of solid waste or garbage, with the amount of waste generated tending to increase with income. Nevertheless, it is the poorer cities that have the greatest problems dealing with waste collection and disposal. In Dar es Salaam, for example, with 75% of the population living in unplanned areas, only 10% of the 2000 tons of solid waste generated daily is actually collected. In Sambalpur, India, a survey indicated that 98% of households simply threw their rubbish out in the open as there were no rubbish bins available in the area. Very often waste is thrown into rivers and lakes with huge knock on effects for water pollution. In Sa?o Paolo, for instance, half the city’s ‘favelas’ are located on the banks of the reservoirs supplying water to the metropolis, and those living in the slums throw their waste directly into this reservoir or the brooks running into it.

Inadequate waste disposal can also exacerbate problems of drainage and poor drainage, waste management, and sanitation interacting together can be devastating on the urban environment and health – piles of rubbish block drains leading to stagnant pools of water, breeding disease and attracting mosquitoes that spread malaria and dengue fever. Uncollected domestic waste is the most common cause of blocked urban drainage systems in Asian cities. In these situations, urban waste also often mixes with excreta, spreading pathogens and waterborne diseases around communities.

Low income areas are often so cramped as to be completely inaccessible to refuse collection vehicles. One method often resorted to is the burning or burying of rubbish, both of which can be environmentally damaging. Even where waste is collected, toxic and hazardous wastes generated by industry are often dumped untreated at the same disposal sites as domestic solid waste. Often considered an issue most pertinent to the wealthiest countries, the problem of toxic waste is also rapidly extending beyond the countries of the global North; according to current trends, the amount of toxic metals being generated in countries such as China, India, and Turkey could reach levels comparable with those of the UK and France within the next decade. However, many of these countries do not have adequate regulations for the disposal of toxic wastes, while the risk posed by the discharge of hazardous chemicals is being exacerbated by the transfer of certain ‘dirty industries’ from the North to the developing world. The brunt of these problems is borne by low income communities, many of which have been established in close proximity to damaging waste disposal sites.

Urban Energy Consumption

The way in which urban communities consume energy can have serious impacts not only on their own immediate environment but on that of the surrounding region. The most obvious way this occurs is through the generation of air pollution. The rapid growth of coal fueled industry and of motor vehicles in cities of the developing world has obvious environmental consequences. In India, between 1990 and 2000, for example, the number of motor vehicles more than doubled. Indeed, for most of the cities examined in a study conducted by the Urban Management Programme, the motorized fleet is growing faster than the population and has significantly outstripped the capacity of the city’s roads. The vehicles used are also often old and emit much higher level of pollutants than the newer models usually used in industrialized countries. The same is often true of the equipment used by industry, particularly in the case of smaller unregulated firms. The severity of atmospheric pollution is such that 1.5 billion urban dwellers worldwide are exposed to levels of ambient air pollution above their recommended maximum levels. The main healththreatening pollutants produced by industry, power stations, vehicles, and other activities in cities are sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, suspended particulates, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, ozone, volatile organic compounds, and airborne lead. To take one extreme example, the Chinese city of Guangzhou has a remarkable seventeen times the amount of sulfur dioxide in London. Dependence on low quality coal for industry is a particularly acute problem in the cities of China and Eastern Europe.

Another major problem relating to energy consumption in developing world cities is that of indoor pollution. Often considered more of a rural problem, this is increasingly a huge hazard in cities – cottage industries and those working in the informal economy are particularly vulnerable, but even domestic energy use poses severe dangers. In Accra, for example, the high reliance on burning biomass fuels such as charcoal and wood for basic household activities can result in serious levels of indoor pollution. Here women and children are the most vulnerable; indeed, women and young children face far greater exposure to pollutants from indoor than outdoor air. It is estimated that half a million annual deaths worldwide can be attributed to particulate matter and sulfur dioxide alone, and while it is hard to distinguish the effects of indoor from outdoor pollution, in 1992, the World Bank identified indoor air pollution as one of the four most critical global environmental problems.

The effects of urban energy consumption do not end with air pollution; it can also have a huge impact on surrounding water and land. Where water pollution is severe, the impact on agriculture and fisheries can be enormous – average fish yields in polluted zones of one river in India are around a sixth of those in unpolluted zones. Air pollution from urban energy creation can also result in acid rain, which can devastate agricultural practices. Moreover, in Jakarta, the use of wood as source of urban energy has been an important cause of periurban deforestation. In this respect, the environmental impacts of energy consumption in cities both on the cities themselves and their surrounding regions can be very wide ranging.

Natural Features and Housing

All of the urban environmental problems discussed above are affected by natural factors such as climate. Extreme temperatures can greatly enhance the effects of a particular environmental hazard. For example, a hot climate is likely to foster particular disease vectors, and air pollution problems are likely to rise with temperature extremes; in cold areas, more coal is burned for heating, and in hot parts of the world contributions to ozone formation increase due to the release of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. Other aspects of geography and topography can also determine the nature of environmental hazards; Mexico City, for example, is especially plagued by air pollution not just because of the number of cars per capita, but because it is bounded by mountains that prevent the dispersal of pollutants.

The location and quality of housing is a further source of urban environmental problems. Poorly constructed shelter can exacerbate environmental problems such as indoor air pollution, while problems of overcrowding can contribute to the spreading of disease. The poor general health of many low income groups and high levels of malnutrition combine with cramped living conditions to increase susceptibility to highly contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, influenza, and meningitis. Moreover, informal settlements are often established on marginal land due to issues of affordability and the low probability of eviction. However, this also puts low income communities at risk. Rio de Janeiro provides a trenchant example; the majority of its favelas are built on the steep hillsides surrounding the city, and many are destroyed by landslides and have to be rebuilt. Often environmental safety is traded for security of tenure; indeed, poor groups are usually very aware of the dangers, and choose these dangerous sites to live in because their low monetary cost and proximity to work and urban livelihoods meet their most pressing needs.

Variables Shaping the Brown Agenda

There are a huge number of variables that determine the particular combination of environmental problems in any given city, but one of the most significant is its wealth. While richer cities and better off residents are more concerned with hazardous wastes, ambient air pollution, and lack of green space, the most pressing environmental concerns in poor cities and among low income groups tend to be those associated with basic sanitation, water supply, and indoor pollution. Population size and the rate of urbanization can also influence the nature and severity of urban environmental problems, with faster growing cities being less able to deal with service delivery issues such as managing solid waste, sanitation, and water supply. The size and economic significance of the informal economy is an important variable, although it can have both beneficial and detrimental impacts. For example, in India and Pakistan, the volume of waste requiring incineration or disposal in landfill sites is reduced as a result of waste recovery and recycling activities in the informal economy. Conversely, difficulties in regulating the activities of small scale informal sector and cottage industries and their tendency to use cheap low quality fuel means that the informal economies of many cities pose hazardous waste problems. Overall, cities with high levels of informal or illegal industry tend to suffer additional environmental damage.

An additional variable is the collective action of local actors who may be organized either informally or through statutory channels and who can mitigate environmental impacts through community organizations. There is a tendency for such organizations to proliferate among the better off with NIMBY (not in my backyard) objectives. However, the urban poor can be highly organized and have achieved impressive results through federations of the urban poor.