Friday November 09, 2007 [03:00]
It is encouraging that the government has started to make some movements towards upgrading of squatter settlements around the country. The amounts of money released so far may not be adequate to comprehensively deal with this problem, but what is important is that the process has begun. A lot has been said about squatter settlements and those concerned have raised valid concerns.
Some people are of the view that squatter settlements should just be demolished so that the squatters can be moved to alternative places. Others have argued that since the numbers of people living in squatter settlements is quite considerable, it is not possible to demolish houses in these places and that upgrading them would be most ideal.
Well, the problem of squatter settlements is not as easy as it appears on the surface. It goes beyond what meets the eye. To fully appreciate this problem, it is important to interrogate several factors. But what we can clearly state is that - looking at the realities in our economy - the problem of squatter settlements in urban areas is an unavoidable phenomenon. For as long as urban areas remain the main centres of economic activity, we expect the numbers of people migrating from rural areas to continue going up. And since very little is happening in terms of infrastructure development to accommodate the large numbers of people migrating to urban areas, more and more rural-urban migrants will become squatters. And we should never deceive ourselves to think that the problem of squatter settlements is so easy to solve.
There is no magic-bullet solution to this problem. In the past, we have seen some confrontational approach from those in government in the manner they have dealt with squatters. But this problem does not require a bellicose attitude from those in government. As we have already stated, there are several factors which have led to some of our people living in squatter settlements, most of which border on economic considerations while others have to do with our systems of urban planning.
To deal with the problem of squatter settlements will require not just short or medium term measures such as simply upgrading these settlements because this in itself encourages the practice. The problem requires long-term measures such as improving the living standards of people in rural areas because we know that people are migrating to urban centres in search of a better quality of life. They are deserting rural areas because poverty is biting hard and the conditions of living are deteriorating. And the problem is that when they arrive in the cities, there is inadequate housing.
The result is that these people start constructing illegal structures, which unfortunately are allowed to get to levels where it becomes difficult to stop them. And this is the result we are seeing today of the government being forced to recognise these settlements by upgrading them.
Given the fact that these settlements are unplanned, it means that they lack basic services such as water and electricity supply, roads, drainage systems and other vital infrastructure. Where these are available, the standards are below appropriate or minimum levels because the squatters have to improvise on most of these services. They have to dig shallow wells for water; they illegally connect themselves to power supply lines and their settlements are always flooded during the rainy season because there is no proper drainage.
These are the consequences of having unplanned settlements. And this is why we are saying that squatter settlements must be avoided from the outset. In our view, it is possible to avoid these squatter settlements if we have long-term plans in whatever we do as a country. But as long as certain things - such as the economy - are not in order, it will be difficult to deal with this problem because people will continue trekking to the cities even if there is no accommodation for them as long as they feel a better life can only be found in urban areas. But it is possible to minimise the movement of people to our already congested cities if their lives are improved wherever they may be.
If basic services and infrastructure are put in place in rural areas, the movement of people will to a great extent be minimised. We are not saying that people should stop moving from one place to another because this is not possible. People will always move between stations or locations for many reasons. Our main concern is to do with the large scale movement of people from rural to urban centres in search of what they feel is a better life.
While it is encouraging that the government is now moving towards upgrading squatter settlements in different parts of the country, we think that we should start looking at long-term plans of avoiding these clearly undesirable settlements.
As the English say, a stitch in time saves nine. Yes, there is nothing wrong with the government's decision to upgrade squatter settlements because there may be no other alternative to this. All we are saying is that we should change our way of doing things so that, if possible, these settlements are avoided altogether. There is need to get back to serious planning so that the eyesore that these settlements have become can be avoided.