Urban growth in developing countries

Demographic growth and rural-urban migrations in developing countries render human, water or energy flows much harder to manage and control. The challenge is to ensure that this urbanizing world facing tremendous mutations and the consequences of climate change remains sustainable.

Fast-paced urbanization impedes access to quality water and energy infrastructure 

The development of infrastructure and facilities that would ensure decent living standards to the poor currently is unable to keep up with the unprecedented pace and scale of urbanization facing cities. Water distribution and sanitation urban networks are faulty, inadequate and largely insufficient to cover the needs. Nonetheless, the number of newcomers is constantly increasing although most of them will be excluded from any urban service.

African cities are the fastest developing cities and are overwhelmed by the pace of urban development. Sub-Saharan cities will need to welcome 340 million more inhabitants over the next twenty years. Necessary investments for relevant land developments are estimated around USD 45 billion a year.


The integration of developing cities’ newcomers requires relevant land-use policies

Urbanization, when it unfolds in an anarchic fashion, divides the city and creates informal, off-grid neighbourhoods. In most developing countries, land-use policies over the past 20 years have had disappointing, even alarming results. The unregulated or informal land and housing markets are growing and exacerbate existing inequalities of access to essential services (access to water, to sanitation, to electricity).

The main two obstacles facing the most vulnerable in accessing water are the connection fee and the frequent refusal of extending the network in informal areas. As a direct consequence, the poor can pay their water up to 50 times more than the rich, who are connected to the water system (source: UN-Habitat).

How can we promote the integration of poor communities into the metropolitan economy and regularization of informal settlements? This is a clear social and environmental challenge that necessitates solutions to modernize land-use policies and property rights in developing countries.

“Access to land titles in Africa remains a remote dream. Experience invites us to advocate for the recognition of all tenure titles, housing certificates, utility bills and those proofs of address that give a right to the city and a right to life.”

Alioune Badiane, Director, Programme Division, UN-Habitat


Strengthening local authorities’ legitimacy and institutional competence in dealing with urbanization challenges

In many cases, the capacity of developing cities to solve issues facing them is strongly correlated to the level of capacity, competence, and legitimacy granted to local authorities. Yet the general trend of decentralization ongoing in most developing countries has seldom come with sufficient levels of fiscal power that would enable local authorities to finance urban infrastructure investments. As these local governments are likely to raise their relative share in financing local investments, one funding model could be financing through property development and capturing land values.

"The tragedies we face in urban development are often the result of national governments failing to comply with local contingencies.”

Michel Rocard, former Prime Minister and member of (Re)sources, during (Re)sources seminar on urban growth and access to essential services, February 2016.

Besides, civil society organizations and specifically communities have a key role to play in improving urban policy management and the decision-making process underpinning the organization of urban infrastructure.

“Many countries lack any form of awareness raising or of a strong statement that political will is the backbone of any urban project. Way too often, the discussion focuses solely on technicalities of the project.”

Guillaume Josse, urban planner and geographer


Read more: (Re)sources seminar on urban growth and access to essential services



(Re)sources' recommendations



At the end of the round table organised on the issues and the role of land security for access to water in the informal settlements,The think tank (Re)sources carried the following recommendations towards the international community and  water community:
Noting that

  • The significant growth of the cities is not accompanied by the basic infrastructures - water, sanitation, electricity - necessary to ensure decent living conditions for the people living in the informal settlements;
  • The share of the unregulated or informal land market exacerbates inequalities with respect to access to essential services;
  • The two main obstacles to access to water in these districts are the price of the connection and the prohibition to connect the informal areas,  resulting in the development of an informal  water market, sometimes kind of mafia;
  • The recognition of the right to water as a human right has changed the way that we should look at the problem: the prohibition of water supplies in an informal area is no longer acceptable and calls for appropriate responses;
  • The urban development is at the center of the democratic debate also of relations between social groups.


(Re)sources suggests that  concrete and pragmatic actions should be taken into account to improve and enhance the  access to essential services in informal settlements:

 At the local , administrative and policy level:

  • By the recognition of neighborhood committees as institutional actor of urban organization in link with the national and local public authorities. By their inclusion in the consultation arrangements and in joint decision in the planning of infrastructure projects of informal settlements
  • By the recognition, in informal settlements of major axes of highway systems as public domain. This recognition allows the realization of the right to a water service, by public  standpipes connected to the drinking water network , before connecting the private landholding.
  • By the recognition of the subscription to essential services such as proof of residence for the inhabitants.


  • Over 50% of the world’s population is now living in cities. It is forecasted that by 2050, when global population reaches 9 billion, there will be 6.7 billion urban dwellers, that is more than 2/3 of the global population.
  • In 2050 Africa’s population will have doubled and 2 out of 3 Africans will be living in cities.
  • 1/4 of Uganda’s population de la population lives in unauthorized areas. It is also the case in many Latin America countries.
  • In Mumbai, 7 million individuals – about 54% of the population – live in slums or informal settlements, areas defined both by poverty levels and by the illegal character of the settlements.

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Urban growth in developing countries