Urbanization, in and of itself, is not a bad thing for the environment. In over-developed countries like the United States, it can even be said that urban life is more environmentally sustainable than living in a rural area surrounded by forests and wildflowers. Urban living concentrates human impacts and leaves more land open for wildlife and ecosystem services; it reduces driving to get to work and the grocery store; water, power and sewer infrastructure is much simpler; multi-unit buildings are more efficient in general than single-family homes; and the list goes on. The year 2008 was the tipping point when more than 50% of the world’s population was living in cities, and on one level, this is cause for celebration.
However, in Uganda and much of the developing world, the equation is a bit more complex. There are advantages to urbanization even there: a rapidly growing rural population (Uganda has the 5th fastest-growing population in the world, and over 80% of it still works in small-holder agriculture) means that the country is quickly running out of land for everyone to continue farming. The influx of young men and women means there is a large available workforce in the cities for manufacturing and other industries. And the educational opportunities – if you can afford to attend school – are far superior in the cities than in the rural areas so more of the population is becoming better educated.
So the issue isn’t that urbanization is happening – the issue is how it is happening.
The best way for urbanization to happen is infill. You take the existing footprint of a city and find ways to fit more people into it. In Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, that’s not what is happening. Instead, the city is spreading out across the landscape like mold across a piece of bread.
Once known as the “City of Seven Hills,” Kampala has expanded to encompass far more than those original seven, and there is no longer any clear boundary between the capital and outlying towns that once had separate identities.
This has a number of impacts, including growth that outpaces infrastructure, more congested roads because people are commuting into the city center from farther away, trash and sewage that has no place to go, forests surrounding the city being cut down to build communities, and dangerously high levels of pollution due to a lack of emissions controls on vehicles.
Each of these issues could be an entire post. For now, though, I want to bring attention to one victim of urbanization in Kampala. Lake Victoria.
Kampala is built right on the shores of Lake Victoria – the world’s second-largest lake, the source of the River Nile, and a critical economic engine for the region through commercial and subsistence fishing, power generation and shipping.
As the footprint of a city like Kampala expands, more of the landscape becomes impermeable. Paved roads, the roofs of buildings, sidewalks, and even hard-packed dirt, send rain rushing right into the lake, burdened with a load of pollutants created by an ever-expanding city. To make matters worse, many of the papyrus marshes along the lake shore – nature’s perfect filters – have been burned and filled to make even more solid ground to build homes and factories, so the lake’s natural cleaning abilities have been reduced.
Beyond filtration, those marshes provide nursery areas for young fish to hide in until they are big, strong and fast enough to survive in the open water of the lake. This means that the loss of the wetlands is impacting one of the most important sources of protein for the entire country, and even the fish that survive are being heavily contaminated by industrial waste that would otherwise be somewhat filtered out by the papyrus.
These issues aren’t unique to Uganda or Lake Victoria. Many of the world’s cities are built on the shores of oceans, lakes, and rivers, and at some time in our lives many of us will live near a body of water that is affected by our daily decisions.
The impact Kampala is having on Lake Victoria is an extreme example of a dynamic that happens around the world – when something goes into the water, we think it has gone “away.” We can’t see it anymore, so we don’t think about it. But it is time for us all to think about it and act on it.
We can make choices that will improve the health of the water around us. When we build, we can use permeable surfaces wherever possible. We can maintain our cars so that they aren’t leaking oil on roads that then gets washed into the sewers and out into lakes, rivers, or the ocean. We can dispose of household chemicals at proper waste facilities rather than pouring them down the drain where they often evade normal water treatment processes. And we can protect wetlands wherever they exist to give nature the chance to protect herself.
About the Author
Mark Jordahl has divided his time between Uganda and the United States for over a decade, working in both conservation and tourism. He believes strongly in the power of personal experiences in other cultures to broaden our perspectives, and recently co-led Regis University’s travel learning program in Uganda with Professor Abby Schneider (read her Uganda post).