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The COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic is exposing the risks of allowing Africa’s swelling ranks of city dwellers to crowd into slums without proper access to water, sewers, transport, and other public services, urban experts have warned.

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Not a single African city ranks in the world’s 10 most populous urban areas today – but by 2100, half of the biggest cities are expected to be in Africa, according to U.N. data.

Already, emerging African megacities – from Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam to Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa – are growing faster than authorities have the resources to prepare for their expansion, city leaders say.

The arrival of the coronavirus in Africa in recent weeks has shown that in a continent where little more than half of the city dwellers have consistent access to clean water, washing hands for 20 seconds, many times a day, is not feasible, said Astrid Haas, policy director for the International Growth Centre.

Many slum families also live in just one room, making it impossible to maintain a physical distance of 2 meters (6 feet) from one another to reduce the chance of infection, said Haas, who is based in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

And with Uganda having just 55 intensive-care hospital beds for a population of 43 million, “our health system can’t afford to take on the pandemic infection rate we see across the United States and parts of Europe and Asia”, said Haas, whose organization promotes sustainable growth in developing nations.

Still, planning ahead for the future infrastructure Africa’s growing cities will need is possible even with limited resources, she told an online discussion at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship this week.

SOMALILAND MAPS

Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, for instance, has published maps of where it intends to build roads and other infrastructure, and guides migrants to plots available for settlement that won’t interfere with those plans, Haas said.

With a city budget of just $8 million a year, Hargeisa cannot build new infrastructure quickly – but protecting the space will save money when it does, she noted.

“It’s three times more expensive to put in piped water and sewer systems when people are already on the land,” she added.

George Kibala Bauer of the Mobile for Development Utilities programme, backed by the global mobile phone industry, said African cities can take advantage of their extensive cellphone access, which he said is 40% higher in urban than rural areas.

Phones can help the poor buy solar power, clean water or toilet use on a pay-as-you-go basis by sending small amounts of cash digitally.

Such mobile money systems can also give people tools to bootstrap themselves into more formal systems, accessing things like licenses and permits, he said.

Haas noted that widespread use of mobile phones in Kampala, for instance, has allowed the creation of real-time maps of traffic congestion, based on phone locations – a benefit for residents.

“We’re urbanizing in a resource-poor environment … but a data-rich environment,” she said.

Abosede Alimi, director of strategy at the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund, said planning ahead to create jobs for millions of new residents was a key priority, with an estimated 85 people arriving every hour to live in Nigeria’s largest city.

“Jobs are a critical part of ensuring the city functions,” she said, noting her agency was giving loans to help small businesses get going and setting up training for youth in high-demand sectors, from healthcare to tourism and construction.

Edward Glaeser, a Harvard University urban economist, said getting planning right for African cities’ coming growth was crucial, as there was little chance of reducing accelerating urbanization on the continent.

In Africa, “there’s no future in rural poverty,” he said. “It’s vital we make these cities more innovative and livable.”

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