Press release, December 4th 2006
Helmholtz centres sign agreement with UN
Leipzig/Santiago de Chile. On Wednesday, research centres within the Helmholtz Association signed a cooperation agreement with the UN organisation ECLAC/CEPAL on research in urban areas of Latin America. ECLAC/CEPAL is the UN commission for the economic development of Latin America and the Caribbean. The aim of the new Risk Habitat Megacity research initiative is to develop strategies for sustainable development in megacities and urban agglomerations by 2013.
Besides five Helmholtz Association centres (the Research Centre Karlsruhe, the Geological Research Centre Potsdam, the German Aerospace Centre, the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research Braunschweig and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research Leipzig) and two Chilean universities (Universidad de Chile and Pontificia Universidad Católica), the research initiative now also involves the UN commission for Latin America (ECLAC/CEPAL). Around 40 scientists will work on the research initiative, with a budget of around 2 million euros per year. Urbanisation is very far advanced in Latin America. The urban share of the population in Latin America is higher than in Europe and much higher than in Asia and Africa. The continuing urbanisation trend brings with it new risks and new opportunities.
The figures are dramatic: according to UN estimates, 90% of future population growth will be concentrated in towns and cities. In just ten years there will
be over 60 cities with more than five million inhabitants – mostly in developing countries. It is not just the cities that are i ncreasing in size: the
ecological impacts of this urbanisation process are huge. Towns and cities cover only 2% of the Earth’s surface, but use 75% of the resources. Pressing
environmental problems like waste mountains and water pollution are the consequence of this development.
This is why five Helmholtz Association centres and partner organisations in Latin America are now researching these processes in greater detail. The focus of the research initiative coordinated by the UFZ in Leipzig is on ‘Risk Habitat Megacity’. This is because the inhabitants of these megacities are often exposed to risks through the huge social divide and as a result of technical risks like the absence of drinking water, as well as being exposed to natural risks like landslides, earthquakes and flooding – problems that will also affect Central Europe. Megacities contribute to global climate change through air pollution. Unhygienic conditions lead to a much higher risk of epidemics. The fears concerning the spread of bird flu via air travellers give an indication of the threats posed by these risk regions to people living in other regions in a globalised world. In addition, immigration pressure on European countries is growing – see the example of illegal immigrants from Africa on the EU’s southern border in the Mediterranean.
The research initiative will focus on the metropolises of Latin America. 76% of the population there is already concentrated in towns and cities. In Europe the figure is 75.5%. By contrast, in South-East Asia and Africa only 35% of the population lives in cities. This means that processes that await the towns and cities of other continents are already visible in Latin America. For instance, migration from the countryside now plays only a subsidiary role. Now most people tend to move house within the city, leading to social differentiation. In addition, there is increasing international migration. In a megacity the issues at stake are not just its size and population, but also its national significance. Because of the functions concentrated in a megacity, it also plays a decisive role in the development of the country. Lima and Buenos Aires are the focus of about half the economic power of their respective countries.
The platform for the initiative, and the first case study, is the metropolitan region of Santiago de Chile. This city suffers the typical problems of a megacity and also highlights potential solutions. Together with two universities and the UN organisation ECLAC/CEPAL, the Helmholtz researchers intend to spend the next few years looking for sustainable development pathes for Santiago and other megacities in Latin America: What are the main problems? What are the risks inhibiting sustainable development? What might the city look like in a generation’s time? The researchers intend to make particular use of the strengths of the Helmholtz Association: cooperation between natural and social scientists. Although the megacity research is in its very early stages, one thing is already certain: investigating isolated aspects is not enough on its own. Only an integrated holistic view can help solve this urgent problem faced by mankind.
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Doris Böhme / Tilo Arnhold
Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ
phone +49 341-235-2278