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Asian cities are growing but quality of life is plummeting

Years of promises but no action; isn't it about time we thought about cleaning up our urban centres?

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) is currently hosting the Asian Network of Major Cities 21 Conference (ANMC21) in Thailand's capital. The event is a forum for international participants to exchange views on the administration of big cities and the issues that come with rapid urbanisation.

The ANMC21 is an international network of Asian capital and major cities, undertaking joint projects on common tasks regarding crisis management, environmental counter-measures and industrial development, and applying the outcomes to the development of the Asian region. The conference is being held from October 31 to November 4, is in response to the common issues that Asian cities share.

Representatives from 10 Asian major cities - Delhi, Hanoi, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei, Singapore and Bangkok - will discuss, among other items, two main topics: Sustainable tourism and swine-flu prevention.

As Asian countries enjoy economic growth, many face problems that come with too-rapid urbanisation. City dwellers in many Asian countries are increasingly suffering from deteriorating environment conditions.

Many big Asian cities, including Bangkok, have seen their populations grow so fast that social services and infrastructure cannot cope. High density of population can also lead to the quick spread of communicable diseases such as swine flu. Besides this, rapidly growing cities tend to suffer the twin problems of an upsurge in crime and poverty in slum areas.

But the urbanisation of Asian cities is an irreversible trend. Economic activities tend to prosper in the big cities, attracting a massive number of people from the countryside, especially in countries with inadequate income distribution between urban and rural areas. Cities have become the centres for economic growth. But this sudden growth fails to deal with the high number of migrants who hope to earn a better income in the cities. Many are left unemployed or forced to reside in unhealthy conditions.

Urban areas worldwide are gaining an estimated 67 million people a year, or about 1.3 million every week. By 2030, about five billion people are expected to live in cities - 60 per cent of the projected global population of 8.3 billion, according to the World Health Organisation.

Urbanisation will affect the urban poor the most, because they lack access to proper housing facilities and sanitation. Millions across the region live in slums and are also exposed to crime, drugs and violence. The poor health of people in cities can thus hamper development goals.

The meeting this week should enable responsible agencies to share their views and experiences on how to effectively lay down proper infrastructure and implement good urban planning.

Asian countries tend to see high densities of population in capital cities, which tend to be the centre of government and business activities. In the case of Bangkok, the city serves not only locals but a high number of tourists and expats, and for years we have been promised sustainable growth to make Bangkok a liveable city.

The rapid growth of cities tends to come at a price. Increasing levels of air pollution are just one problem. In Bangkok, air pollution in many districts regularly exceeds the maximum recommended limit, due largely to Bangkokians using personal vehicles to commute to work, because of inadequate public transport. Other Asian cities suffer high levels of air pollution, including from chemicals such as sulphur dioxide, because of the large number of factories in suburban areas.

These are the issues that officials should be discussing seriously and then actually addressing - to show that the health of Asian city dwellers is not just a never-ending talking point.


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