Planet of Slums

The prolific and controversial urban critic, Mike Davis, has a new book Planet of Slums. It is based upon his article Planet of Slums in New Left Review (March-April 2004). In Planet of Slums he writes:

There may be more than quarter of a million slums on earth. The five great metropolises of South Asia (Karachi, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Dhaka) alone contain about 15,000 distinct slum communities with a total population of more than 20 million. An even larger slum population crowds the urbanizing littoral of West Africa, while other huge conurbations of poverty sprawl across Anatolia and the Ethiopian highlands; hug the base of the Andes and the Himalayas; explode outward from the skyscraper cores of Mexico, Jo-burg, Manila and São Paulo; and, of course, line the banks of the rivers Amazon, Niger, Congo, Nile, Tigris, Ganges, Irrawaddy and Mekong. The building blocks of this slum planet, paradoxically, are both utterly interchangeable and spontaneously unique: including the bustees of Kolkata, the chawls and zopadpattis of Mumbai, the katchi abadis of Karachi, the kampungs of Jakarta, the iskwaters of Manila, the shammasas of Khartoum, the umjondolos of Durban, the intra-murios of Rabat, the bidonvilles of Abidjan, the baladis of Cairo, the gecekondus of Ankara, the conventillos of Quito, the favelas of Brazil, the villas miseria of Buenos Aires and the colonias populares of Mexico City. They are the gritty antipodes to the generic fantasy-scapes and residential themeparks—Philip K. Dick’s bourgeois ‘Offworlds’—in which the global middle classes increasingly prefer to cloister themselves.

Whereas the classic slum was a decaying inner city, the new slums are more typically located on the edge of urban spatial explosions. The horizontal growth of cities like Mexico, Lagos or Jakarta, of course, has been extraordinary, and ‘slum sprawl’ is as much of a problem in the developing world as suburban sprawl in the rich countries. The developed area of Lagos, for instance, doubled in a single decade, between 1985 and 1994. The Governor of Lagos State told reporters last year that ‘about two thirds of the state’s total land mass of 3,577 square kilometres could be classified as shanties or slums’. Indeed, writes a UN correspondent,

“much of the city is a mystery . . . unlit highways run past canyons of smouldering garbage before giving way to dirt streets weaving through 200 slums, their sewers running with raw waste . . . No one even knows for sure the size of the population—officially it is 6 million, but most experts estimate it at 10 million—let alone the number of murders each year [or] the rate of HIV infection.”

Lagos, moreover, is simply the biggest node in the shanty-town corridor of 70 million people that stretches from Abidjan to Ibadan: probably the biggest continuous footprint of urban poverty on earth.

Slum ecology, of course, revolves around the supply of settlement space. Winter King, in a recent study published in the Harvard Law Review, claims that 85 per cent of the urban residents of the developing world ‘occupy property illegally’. Indeterminacy of land titles and/or lax state ownership, in the last instance, are the cracks through which a vast humanity has poured into the cities. The modes of slum settlement vary across a huge spectrum, from highly disciplined land invasions in Mexico City and Lima to intricately organized (but often illegal) rental markets on the outskirts of Beijing, Karachi and Nairobi. Even in cities like Karachi, where the urban periphery is formally owned by the government, ‘vast profits from land speculation . . . continue to accrue to the private sector at the expense of low-income households’. Indeed national and local political machines usually acquiesce in informal settlement (and illegal private speculation) as long as they can control the political complexion of the slums and extract a regular flow of bribes or rents. Without formal land titles or home ownership, slum-dwellers are forced into quasi-feudal dependencies upon local officials and party bigshots. Disloyalty can mean eviction or even the razing of an entire district.

The provision of lifeline infrastructures, meanwhile, lags far behind the pace of urbanization, and peri-urban slum areas often have no formal utilities or sanitation provision whatsoever. Poor areas of Latin American cities in general have better utilities than South Asia which, in turn, usually have minimum urban services, like water and electricity, that many African slums lack. As in early Victorian London, the contamination of water by human and animal waste remains the cause of the chronic diarrhoeal diseases that kill at least two million urban babies and small children each year. An estimated 57 per cent of urban Africans lack access to basic sanitation and in cities like Nairobi the poor must rely on ‘flying toilets’ (defecation into a plastic bag). In Mumbai, meanwhile, the sanitation problem is defined by ratios of one toilet seat per 500 inhabitants in the poorer districts. Only 11 per cent of poor neighbourhoods in Manila and 18 per cent in Dhaka have formal means to dispose of sewage. Quite apart from the incidence of the HIV/AIDS plague, the UN considers that two out of five African slum-dwellers live in a poverty that is literally ‘life-threatening’.

The urban poor, meanwhile, are everywhere forced to settle on hazardous and otherwise unbuildable terrains—over-steep hillslopes, river banks and floodplains. Likewise they squat in the deadly shadows of refineries, chemical factories, toxic dumps, or in the margins of railroads and highways. Poverty, as a result, has ‘constructed’ an urban disaster problem of unprecedented frequency and scope, as typified by chronic flooding in Manila, Dhaka and Rio, pipeline conflagrations in Mexico City and Cubatão (Brazil), the Bhopal catastrophe in India, a munitions plant explosion in Lagos, and deadly mudslides in Caracas, La Paz and Tegucigalpa. The disenfranchised communities of the urban poor, in addition, are vulnerable to sudden outbursts of state violence like the infamous 1990 bulldozing of the Maroko beach slum in Lagos (‘an eyesore for the neighbouring community of Victoria Island, a fortress for the rich’) or the 1995 demolition in freezing weather of the huge squatter town of Zhejiangcun on the edge of Beijing.

The March 2006 Orion Magazine has an article Slum Ecology based upon the book.

The subject of human waste is, of course, indelicate; but it is a fundamental problem of city life from which there is surprisingly little escape. Lovly Josaphat, a resident of Port-au-Prince’s largest slum, Cité Soleil, told author Beverly Bell, “I’ve suffered a lot. When it rains, the part of the Cité I live in floods and the water comes in the house. There’s always water on the ground, green smelly water, and there are no paths. The mosquitoes bite us. My four-year-old has bronchitis, malaria, and even typhoid now… The doctor said to give him boiled water, not to give him food with grease, and not to let him walk in the water. But the water’s everywhere; he can’t set foot outside the house without walking in it. The doctor said that if I don’t take care of him, I’ll lose him.”

Green, smelly water everywhere. “Every day, around the world,” according to public-health expert Eileen Stillwaggon, “illnesses related to water supply, waste disposal, and garbage kill thirty thousand people and constitute 75 percent of the illnesses that afflict humanity.” Indeed, digestive-tract diseases arising from poor sanitation and the pollution of drinking water are the leading cause of death in the world, affecting mainly infants and small children. Open sewers and contaminated water are likewise rife with intestinal parasites such as whipworm, roundworm, and hookworm that infect tens of millions of children in poor cities. Cholera, the scourge of the Victorian city, continues to thrive off the fecal contamination of urban water supplies, especially in African cities like Antananarivo, Maputo, and Lusaka, where UNICEF estimates that up to 80 percent of deaths from preventable diseases (apart from HIV/AIDS) arise from poor sanitation.

“At any one time,” adds a 1996 report by the World Health Organization, “close to half of the South’s urban population is suffering from one or more of the main diseases associated with inadequate provision for water and sanitation.” Although clean water is the cheapest and single most important medicine in the world, public provision of water remains widely inadequate, and often competes with powerful private interests. In Dhaka, vendors mark up the cost of water—often from municipal sources—by 500 percent; in Faisalabad, 6,800 percent. Unable or unwilling to pay the extortionate price of water from vendors, some Nairobi residents resort to desperate expedients, including, two local researchers write, “the use of sewerage water, skipping bathing and washing, using borehole water and rainwater, and drawing water from broken pipes.”

Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, Late Victorian Holocausts, and other books. Davis often raises interesting points, and provides novel syntheses – I found Late Victorian Holocausts to be provactive and powerful. In 2001, Amartya Sen positively reviewed Late Victorian Holocausts in the NY Times Book Review. He wrote:

… it is important to understand the roles of both economic and political power. We have to distinguish between (1) the limited reach of economic markets or public distribution systems, and (2) the limited opportunity of public participation and democratic governance. Imperial systems were severely guilty of both limitations (as Davis’s investigations clearly bring out), but they were not unique in their dual failure. Even though Davis’s historical study concentrates on what can be called imperialist famines, failures of a very similar kind have occurred in independent countries and even in formally Socialist ones. Indeed, in the 20th century the biggest famines occurred mostly in countries outside the domain of liberal capitalism, notably in China during 1958-61 (with possibly 30 million deaths), but also in the Soviet Union in the 1930′s, in Cambodia in the 1970′s and in North Korea in the very recent past (not to mention the dismal record of domestic military dictatorships in sub-Saharan Africa). Absence of economic power combined with a lack of political leverage condemned millions of people to unrelieved destitution and untimely death.

The insightful writer Tariq Ali has described this challenging monograph as ”a veritable Black Book of liberal capitalism.” That it certainly is, but it is more than that. It is an illustrative book of the disastrous consequences of fierce economic inequality combined with a drastic imbalance of political voice and power. The late-Victorian tragedies exemplify a wider problem of human insecurity and vulnerability related, ultimately, to economic disparity and political disempowerment. The relevance of this highly informative book goes well beyond its immediate historical focus.

However, Mike Davis’s analysis can be painfully dark and full of terribilisma. In article about his work on LA, Veronique de Turenne quotes Kevin Starr, California state librarian in her 1998 article Is Mike Davis’s Los Angeles All In His Head?

“Los Angeles is not only the city as Mike presents it, otherwise it wouldn’t be working as well as it is,” Kevin Starr said. “He never talks about an evening at the Hollywood Bowl, an evening at the L.A. Opera — which is marvelous — or about the Lakers or the L.A. Marathon. He hasn’t told us about the millions of people who are finding a second, third and fourth start in L.A. and making it a distinctive city, and he needs to do that. Perhaps when he does, he can find balance.”

A number of Mike Davis’s essays, as well as some of those of his critics, are online at Radical Urban Theory.

6 thoughts on “Planet of Slums”

  1. A got Planet of Slums as a Christmas present and was gobsmacked. No wonder Mike davis has been the victim of an orchestrated hate campaign by the American right. Unless the political right can refute his basic thesis – that one billion people live in slums; that the major international institutions like the IMF and thre World Bank make their position worse; that there is super-exploited by domestic elites – especially women and children; that squatters are being turned into rack-rented tenants and even pavement space is now sold; this and a thousand more facts and figures – unless all this can be refuted, it means that the system defended by the Veronique de Turennes of this world, globalised neoliberal capitalism, is systematically failing the poor and does not deserve any future life.
    Having lived in Mexico City for several years I am familiar with the gated, guarded, communities for the rich and the vast barrios for the poor – in a country where the rich are rich by international standards and 80% are poor or very poor. Mike Davis is full of ‘terribilisma’? That’s because the world is full of truly terrible things to ensure the power and the profits of the globalised, super-rich elite. In this catastrophic inequality and poverty, the only surprise about terrorism is that was so long in coming. Planet of Slums’ final chapter explains how the US military are extensively planning for the guerrilla wars of the future – to be fought out in 3rd world poor urban neighbourhoods. Fantastic? Apocalyptic? Fevered imagination? It doesn’t look that way if you happen to live in Baghdad or Gaza.

  2. The ‘colonias populares’ of Mxico City that Davis describes, cannot be fully categorized as slums. These areas have reliable services such as water and electricity, have neighborhood commerce like bakeries, independently owned grocery stores, ‘fonditas’ or quick-bite restaurants, and even light industry, like small factories. They are occupied by the working poor and the working class and while overcrowded and experience varying degrees of crime, they are not plagued by disease, homelessness, or dire poverty. This is not to say that there are no slums in Mxico City, but it’s a little careless to say that ‘colonias populares’ are slums. Of course, in contrast to the ostentatious display of wealth of the ‘zonas residenciales’ of the nouveau riche and the gated communities of the wealthy, the ‘colonias populares’ may appear to be more impoverished and chaotic than they really are.

  3. Adding to previous comment:

    I think in America, a ‘colonias populares’ would be called a
    ‘low income neighborhood,’ which is different from a slum. Low income neighborhoods still receive some governmental care, like reliable garbage collection, political courting, and community and church involvement. Slums are pretty much abandoned by every stable sector of society–this is not the case with ‘colonias populares’.

  4. I finally got it–the term to use instead of ‘colonias populares’ to denote and connote slums! I think Davis would be better off using the term ‘ciudades perdidas’ or ‘lost cities’ to describe slums. If you say ‘colonias populares,’ in Mxico anyway, to indicate slums, people really will not understand your argument or analysis. ‘Colonias populares’ can be irregular settlements, but they are not slums. They are too diversified and characterized by a certain stability to be slums.

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