Petty crime and pollution are common inconveniences in cities big and small. But in megacities, those with a population of 10 million or more, these and other everyday headaches can quickly become mammoth problems—putting both lives and treasure at risk. The stakes have never been higher. In 1995, the world had just 14 megacities. By 2015, there will be 21. FP looks at the problems plaguing six of them.
Population: 1995 2005 2015 26,800,000
Price of 2.5-mile taxi ride: $16.42
Price of a movie ticket: $21.65
Whats the problem? Earthquakes. Japan sits atop several converging tectonic plates, making it one of the most precariously situated cities on the globe. The Kanto earthquake of 1923 leveled much of the capital city, killing nearly 150,000 people. Scientists say that Tokyo gets hit by a quake of that magnitude about every 70 years, which means its due for the next big one.
Can they deal with it? Better than most. Tokyo has the worlds most comprehensive disaster communications network, connecting government workers and disaster prevention organizations to seismographic instruments that pinpoint quake activity. After an earthquake, residents can quickly access information about at-risk areas and safe travel routes, as well as evacuation instructions, all on their cell phones. The citys fire department has dozens of hyper-rescue teams that not only combat flames but are specially trained in how to use heavy machinery to rescue survivors from rubble.
Mumbai (Bombay), India
Population: 1995 2005 2015 15,100,000
Price of 2.5-mile taxi ride: $1.35
Price of a movie ticket: $2.58
Whats the problem? Monsoons and floods. Located on an island where the Mithi River meets the Arabian Sea, Mumbai gets hit by both inland flooding from the river and harsh monsoon rains from the sea. Last summer, a storm dropped 37 inches of rain in 24 hours, resulting in $700 million in damage. Population growth is making the problem worse. More than 95 percent of Mumbai is built on reclaimed land, and developers have systematically dismantled natural flood barriers and narrowed the mouth of the Mithi.
Can they handle it? Dont bet your life on it. During last years floods, many rescue workers were trapped by rising waters, rendering them unable to offer assistance. A hailstorm of criticism followed, and the Indian government agreed to spend an additional $21.7 million to prepare for this years rains, including the purchase of speed boats and kayaks for six search-and-rescue teams. The city even banned plastic bags, which collect in street gutters and clog storm drains. But the ban is widely ignored, and many residents still doubt the governments ability to help them when the waters rise again.
Mexico City, Mexico
Population: 1995 2005 2015 16,600,000
Price of 2.5-mile taxi ride: $3.31
Price of a movie ticket: $6.46
Whats the problem? Pollution. Mexico City has some of the dirtiest air on Earth. Its pollution levels are five times higher than those of Los Angeles. The World Resources Institute even dubbed it the most dangerous city in the world for children. The culprit? Automobiles. There are about 4 million of them on city roads, and many are extremely old. The citys location, in a volcanic crater 7,350 above sea level, makes matters worse. Low oxygen levels at high altitudes cause burning gasoline to release more pollutants than at sea level, and the surrounding mountain peaks trap emissions inside the metropolis.
Can they handle it? The jury is out. Billboards around the city post pollution levels to raise awareness among drivers. On days when the air is particularly foul, factories are closed and people are encouraged to stay indoors. All of the citys diesel buses, once major polluters, were recently fitted with exhaust systems that reduce emissions. There is also an ongoing policy that bans all cars from driving one day a week, determined by license plate number. But these measures may be too little, too late. A recent study showed no improvement in air quality as a result of the driving restrictions.
So Paolo, Brazil
Population: 1995 2005 2015 16,500,000
Price of 2.5-mile taxi ride: $4.65
Price of a movie ticket: $6.41
Whats the problem? Crime and vice. So Paolo is home to some of the worlds worst violence. During the 1990s, there were more shooting deaths in Brazil than in most war zones. Aggressive tactics employed by police to combat the violence are exacting a heavy toll on the city. In May, clashes between police and gangs escalated into a week-long riot that left 170 people dead.
Can they handle it? Not yet. A nationwide gun amnesty in 2004 netted several thousand guns, with one woman alone turning in more than 1,300 weapons. Paramilitary police walk the streets and have the right to stop, search, and arrest pedestrians, as illegal gun possession is reason enough for automatic imprisonment. But citizens distrust the police and question their tactics. It doesnt help that during the May riots, police killed 107 of the citys residents, and federal prosecutors are investigating reports that unarmed civilians were among the victims.
Seoul, South Korea
Population: 1995 2005 2015 13,400,000
Price of 2.5 mile taxi ride: $5.20
Price of a movie ticket: $7.31
Whats the problem? Overcrowding. South Korea already has the fourth-highest population density in the world, and since the 1960s, the countrys people have steadily migrated to the cities, especially to Seoul. This massive migration is causing overcrowding, straining municipal resources, and making real estate unaffordable to all but the wealthy.
Can they handle it? Yes. In the 1970s, South Koreas authoritarian President Park Chung Hee constructed huge, centrally planned housing developments in the Seoul suburbs to relieve pressure on the capital. They were enormously successful, and private developers have continued the trend. The most expansive new development, Songdo City, a man-made island 40 miles from the center of Seoul, is the largest private real-estate development in the world. South Korea also has plans for a new capital to be built 100 miles southeast of Seoul. Construction begins next year.
Population: 1995 2005 2015 10,300,000
Price of 2.5-mile taxi ride: Unknown
Price of a movie ticket: $14.95
Whats the problem? Sanitation and waste. Lagos is the worlds fastest-growing megacityand the dirtiest. In 1950, Lagos had only 300,000 residents. Today, it has more than 10 million, a number that is likely to double within five years. A largely unplanned city, waste is a perennial problem. Lagos has no sewage treatment facilities, and nearly all garbage is dumped either in the city streets or in a lagoon just outside town.
Can they handle it? Unlikely. The government has attempted to implement a series of sweeping, but impractical and poorly administrated reforms to rid the city of its waste. A 1985 sanitation drive, for instance, required all residents to participate in trash cleaning days. But the waste they collected was never picked up by the city and left to rot in the streets. More recently, the Kick Against Indiscipline, a new paramilitary environmental protection group set up by the government, has busted some of the illegal dumps in town that are run by gangs. But the group has been accused of corruption and targeting the governments political opponents. Bureaucrats saw this coming; they moved the capital across the country to the cleaner city of Abuja.