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WORLD'S POPULATION IS SHIFTING TO BIG CITIES

If current trends continue, more than half the world's population will live in big cities by the year 2020, endangering natural resources, economic development and the environment, the World Bank says.

The bank warned of the likely consequences of unchecked urban growth in a report issued Monday at a conference of about 900 urban leaders concerned with the issue.The report estimated the world's big cities are growing at a rate of a million people a week. And Ismail Serageldin, World Bank vice president for economically sustainable development, said natural resources are deteriorating "on an unprecedented scale" as cities scrounge for water and land. "Increasingly, this agenda requires political attention."

Henry Cisneros, U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, told the conference that American cities are already suffering from uncontrolled growth. He said whole communities are bereft of jobs, packed with poor people and generally are unhealthy due to waste left behind by industry.

"Empty buildings on contaminated lots. Toxic material buried in the ground, which no one will develop," Cisneros said. "The legacy of industrial pollution contributes to the poverty. These communities cannot sustain themselves."

The bank study found urban populations are growing by 3.8 percent a year, and it projected that by 2020, 3.6 billion people will inhabit urban areas while about 3 billion will remain in rural areas.

"In simple terms, the urban population is growing at a rate of 1 million people per week, as if another New Orleans grew from scratch every seven days," the study said.

In 1990, there were 1.4 billion people living in the world's urban areas, compared with about 2.7 billion in rural areas. By 2000, there will be 391 cities with more than 1 million residents, up from 288 in 1990. Of those, 26 will be megacities, with more than 10 million people; 13 of those megacities, the study said, will be in Asia.

Bombay, which is growing by 500,000 people a year, will have 18 million residents by the turn of the century. Sao Paulo, Brazil, will have 25 million residents within the next 20 years.