The obvious effects of population explosion exceeding all prognostications are upon us. Despite all the evidence — overburdened cities causing massive destruction to forests and water tables needed to preserve fragile ecosystems — increasing land scarcity results in ever-more grabbing of private and public land for widening roads and construction.
Vicious wars are being fought over precious property rights in Palestine, Myanmar and elsewhere. Currently Italy is leading the way in Europe in turning away boatloads of economic migrants. Hidden from view — as political suicide for fearful politicians — is the fundamental issue of controlling population growth; it’s seen as impossible, socially unfeasible or, even worse, ungodly.
The population far exceeds the resources necessary to sustain it. Philosopher-economist and prescient social thinker, Great Britain’s Thomas Malthus ( 1766-1834 )
stood nearly alone in foreseeing the predicament of filling up the planet’s habitable lands with what are today huge numbers of unwanted people. He warned of exponential population growth against the arithmetic growth of food supply.
South Asia was once a landscape of sublime architecture, philosophy and art. These countries, which made significant contributions to the thought worlds of science and religion going back to antiquity, today sit in a miasma of pollution and overcrowding. Meanwhile, well-served political elites enjoy their lives as nearly everyone else is searching for an escape route.
No one who has seen today’s subcontinent, for example, could be less than horrified at the number of indigents living out their lives in quiet desperation. One of the few exceptions is Kerala with its democratically elected socialist welfare system that provides a well-constructed, people-friendly system of housing, healthcare and education.
Cooking, copulating, defaecating and dying in open arenas of squalor, disease and decay, many live in an environment unthinkable to the inhabitants of the worst of Kenya’s informal settlements. By the dawn of the 20th century, East and Southern Africa saw waves of South Asian economic migrants on their shores. Today viewed as enhancing East Africa’s largely ecumenical ethnic mix, these are the fortunate few.
Kenya is faced with huge dilemmas, too, caused by uncontrolled population growth. By 2019 the population will reach 52 million. The population of the Nairobi metropolitan area today is more than seven million; one projection places its population at 28 million by 2050. What is to be done with the destitute and the homeless?
Tens of thousands of refugees remain in Northeastern’s Dadaab camp with no final closure in sight. Despite having thousands of hectares of idle land (much of it admittedly arid and needing irrigation), Kenya is yet to settle a few thousand IDPs, among the 250,000 displaced in the 2007-08 ethnic clashes. They continue to live amongst us as squatters in their own country.
No one living in Nairobi can fail to observe the rapid changes taking place all around us. Once surrounded by neat, spacious neighbourhoods of treed terrain cut by pristine rivers, residents shared their lives with monkeys and other small wild creatures as well as migratory birds. Once Nairobi was a friendly, well-planned, picturesque city that was a sheer delight to inhabit.
While unable to regain our past, we can reclaim the city as our own. Free education, affordable housing and healthcare are the place to begin. Hours of precious time is lost in traffic jams; there should be short commutes to one’s destination and workplace.
Rather than more ugly, unnecessary shopping malls, the soft power of thoughtful public planning can do wonders for a city in distress. Planting trees for new public parks and building automobile-free walkways would contribute to a well-ordered city. Bicycle paths and exhibition places for artists, musicians, writers and intellectuals, to show off Kenya’s fabulous arts scene, are just a few of the ideas that can transform this city into the international showcase we yearn for.
Together we can build a place to take pride in and where we can find contentment.