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Johannesburg skyline. Picture: 123RF/VANESSA BENTLEY
Johannesburg skyline. Picture: 123RF/VANESSA BENTLEY

A Sword of Damocles hangs over our cities. As business, intellectual and political centres they have always been a magnet for mankind. In Roman times they contained about 15% of the population. Globally, over 50% of humanity now resides in conurbations.

The size of ancient cities was restricted by the cost of services — aqueducts were expensive — food logistics and the disposal of waste. It was, inter alia, cheap energy, the green revolution and better transportation that has allowed cities’ unbelievable recent expansion.

But energy is no longer cheap. In the UK a litre of diesel is the equivalent of R35. Diesel is critical for the transportation of food. Let’s not talk about the SA railway alternative. Global supply chains are disintegrating and food prices are through the roof.

Electricity prices have almost  tripled in Europe. Our Eskom  supply is increasingly intermittent, as well as being unaffordable for many. Availability of potable water is now problematic. Gqebera's dams are less than 5% full, and in 2018 Cape Town narrowly evaded its Day Zero.

Las Vegas has just introduced a ban on watering domestic lawns. This is ironic as lawns are traditional symbols  of “urban paradise”. But they  are also a prime example of squandering scarce resources.

Disease devastated ancient cities. Today, Covid-19 continues to cause urban unemployment, social instability and transport disruptions.

Urban waste disposal is ruining the environment and causing climate change, including  higher temperatures, droughts and floods. A good example of this negative feedback loop has just occurred  in Durban.

Human incompetence hasn’t helped, with resources squandered on political projects rather than the necessities that make urban life possible. Meanwhile, the rural poor continue to arrive looking for “paradise” and building shacks in potentially dangerous locations.

We may  get a “green” world in future, but if we do don’t expect to live in a mega city because they probably won’t  exist.

James Cunningham
Camps Bay

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