Urging global action to fight poverty, if not the seemingly unstoppable migration of people from rural areas to cities, the UN housing agency Habitat said the growth of slums was a key risk to public health and development.

"The core problem facing the international community is our continuing failure to come to grips with the world's slums," Habitat Chief Anna Tibaijuka said on Monday as she opened a week-long meeting of the agency's governing board in Nairobi.

"Slums, in short, are a toxic mixture of every one of the problems identified in the Millennium Development Goals," she said, adding that "without intervention, the collective slum population will grow to ... three billion people by 2050".

Slow-motion tsunami

Speaking at Habitat's headquarters in Nairobi - itself home to the sprawling Kibera ghetto, one of Africa's largest slums with at least 500,000 residents - Tibaijuka called urban poverty "a slow-motion tsunami" deadlier than the giant waves that devastated the Indian Ocean in December.

Such poverty is "much more destructive of lives and livelihoods than all the world's disasters and wars combined", she said.

Slum dwellers constitute 30%
of the world's urban population

In a message to the Habitat delegates, UN chief Kofi Annan noted that slum-dwellers in Africa, Asia and Latin America account for 30% of a global urban population, now higher than at any point in history.

"Cities hold great potential as engines of growth and social development, yet they are also bastions of inequality in terms of health and living conditions, employment opportunities and the crime and insecurity people routinely face," he said.

The keynote speaker at the conference, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, called on rich nations to offer debt relief to reduce rampant poverty in the developing world and slow the growth of slums.

"The international community should implement debt relief, swap debts and debt cancellations, where appropriate, as a means of mobilising resources towards accelating realisation of development goals," he said.