Urbanization is something that every country faces at one point or another in its development. The US, for example, experienced urbanization during the industrial revolution and on to the early 20th century. Today, many developing countries are also experiencing it. Because it is part of the path to development, urbanization is an indicator worth analyzing in the context of El Salvador as it becomes increasingly problematic, specifically in terms of poverty, violence and health.
As nations’ economies move from rural farms to more modern technologies, cities begin to form as hubs for commerce and other economic activity. Urbanization’s momentum grows when even more poor people then decide to relocate to the city in an effort to find better opportunities. This can be seen from Mexico City to Shanghai. Problems arise, however, when cities begin to get overcrowded and the poor create squatting communities along the outside of the cities. Often times these individuals have no rights to the land; more so, living conditions in these communities are terrible.
El Salvador has cities that are not unlike those of other developing countries. In fact, about 60.3% of Salvadorans now live in urban areas. El Salvador’s main urban hubs are San Salvador, San Miguel, and Santa Ana. While Salvadorans decide to go to cities to pursue better lives, city life is often not that glamorous. Typically, urban homes are made out of bricks and cement. Homes in the slums however, are essentially huts made out of aluminum, plastic, and cardboard. It is important to note that these homes are especially susceptible to constant flooding in the rainy season. There are also instances where the single water source in these communities is contaminated.
Urban poverty in El Salvador currently stands at 56%; that is, more than half of those living in cities are barely able to afford to survive. Fewer job opportunities and high costs of living explain why urban poverty is so widespread. Even so, the urban population in El Salvador is growing by about 1.9% each year while the rural population is only rising at 0.6% each year. It becomes a problem when far too many Salvadorans are living in the cities because the government is not able to provide the necessary services to everyone.
Another problem related to urbanization is urban violence. Poverty alone does not explain why crime in cities is more common. It seems that inequality, which is more distinguishable in urban areas, is also a key indicator of crime. Inequality, coupled with daily living conditions, is likely to result in conflict and violence. Violence specifically affects developing countries by stifling necessary economic growth. Urban conflict drains financial capital by requiring greater investments in judicial services and healthcare. Human capital is also reduced by the presence of persistent violence. Deaths and reductions in life expectancy, lower levels of personal security, fewer educational opportunities and lower productivity in the workplace all function to weaken the labor force. Lastly, social capital is also reduced through the ongoing fear and lack of trust within communities that result in less coordination.
Health is yet another problem affected by urban growth; slums are inherently unhealthy living arrangements. Because these individuals do not own the land and are residing in informal communities, they cannot demand better living standards from the government. Living in city slums, like those in San Salvador, Santa Ana, and San Miguel, where there has been little to no urban planning also facilitates the spread of illnesses. More than that, traffic accidents and pollution, two seemingly trivial consequences of urbanization, account for an alarmingly high number of deaths and illnesses.
While the government has not done much to address the issue of living conditions in the cities and slums, it has attempted to address the issue of crime. As a result of its high crime rates, El Salvador has passed a substantial number of laws aimed at reducing crime. With mixed success, the government has remained dedicated to fighting crime since El Salvador became one of the ten most crime-ridden countries in the world. With that said, the government has done little to address the issues of poverty and health in the growing urban areas.
Indeed, urbanization signals progress, however it comes with its own unique set of problems. El Salvador does not have the necessary mechanisms in place to offer everyone in the cities the resources and services they need to pursue a better life. Instead, urban poverty is growing and living conditions continue to deteriorate. Poverty, violence, and health are all variables that interact with one another to create the reality of city life in El Salvador today. As such, one of these factors cannot be remedied without the other two being addressed as well. The government will be forced to address it in the coming years as more and more Salvadorans continue to move to the cities.
Voices on the Border is a Washington DC-based nonprofit that serves refugee communities in Central America.