Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Hidden Vulnerabilities of Asian Cities and Climate Change: Shattering the Myths

SVRK Prabhakar, IGES, Japan

Having come from a rural background, I always had fascinating impression about cities: they are cool, trendy, fashionable, provide better quality of life, have better infrastructure and one can be what they want to be because of multitude of opportunities they provide. No doubt, cities are engines of economic growth for as much as I have seen with no exception. No wonder, they continue to attract the best of the skills available around and far from them. Well, they do have a down side as well. Because they were attracting all the talent, the rural areas are deprived of the skillful human resources and hence have not grown economically as much as their urban counterparts could grow. Part of the problem is to blame the growth center approach, where governments encouraged some areas, cities, to grow at the cost of other areas, villages. The idea is to concentrate the investments at few places and cross-subsidize other areas from the revenue generated. While we were successful in achieving rapid expansion of growth centers, we failed in distributive policies. As a result, rural areas have suffered the most. However, the topic of this blog post is not about how cities failed other areas but how they failed themselves! Time and again the vulnerability assessments have shown that most cities have high vulnerabilities in infrastructure, social and political aspects while few others have economic vulnerabilities. And this has very high relevance when climate change is to impact cities as much as the rural areas, including the ones on coasts. Mind you, most major cities are situated on the coasts, nearly 20% of global population lives on coasts in some of the most populated cities. With nearly 70% of the coastline worldwide are projected to be impacted by the sea level rise, these cities are put to enormous risks of flooding and related losses. Add this to the extreme rainfall events that cities may receive. From this context, there are at least three myths I think need to be busted that have relevance to our collective efforts for comprehensive risk reduction.

Picture: Right or left?

Myth buster I: Rural areas are best fit for food security and livelihood studies!
Not true (well, true if you look at the number of food security and livelihood studies coming from rural areas)! Despite my fascinating views about cities, cities have not vindicated much of my impression about them and that is because the urban governance structures have failed to identify and address vulnerabilities that are seeping below their carpet. Need any evidence? Just take the example of 2008 global food crisis. The research by WFP and others has proven that the urban poor were the most effected during the food crisis. As much as 50-70% of the urban poor representing casual and unskilled laborers experienced a net decline of food intake by 10-15% in most cities they have studied. In addition, the global food crisis has also impacted the livelihoods of petty traders, laborers and peri-urban agriculturists etc. Does this sound any logical? People talk about rural poor when issues like food security and livelihoods come up in the discussion, it never, well almost, occurred to most that it is the bottom strata of urban populace that is probably even more vulnerable than their rural brothers and sisters. It is no brainer that urban poor spend large part of their income on food compared to the rural poor due to relatively high cost of living in urban areas.

Myth buster II: Floods happen only in rural areas!
Well, at least this is what we visualize from most part of watching television: we imagine floods as vast stretch of farm lands inundated by water with folks on their rooftops (blame the media for creating this mental picture?). Not anymore! The 2005 Mumbai floods and 2011 Bangkok floods should completely change this mental picture. These events have clearly shown the problem with our current model of urban development: badly planned infrastructure, blocked natural drainage, and encroachments in the flood plains. We pretended to solve these problems by creating temporary engineering solutions rather than thinking larger and into the future. Whom to be blamed? the poorly staffed urban planning departments or the uncontrolled rural to urban migration or haphazard planning and communication systems of city governments? Studies have time and again indicated how poor the governments were in communicating risks to their city dwellers and how reluctant the insurance companies are to provide affordable flood and fire insurance. Probably the blood is on everybody’s hands. You will be wrong if you think the actual culprits are governments. As is evident from Bangkok floods, even corporations, whom we know as the most risk aware entities on the planet, have ignored the possible flood risks and have installed high-tech manufacturing facilities in flood prone areas and bore the brunt of floods and billion dollar losses.

Myth buster III: Levees are the best means of dealing with coastal floods!
Not true! This point has become very clear from repeated coastal disasters that levees often fail to live to the expectations. The research has clearly indicated how deceptive levees could be in making people believe that they are fully protected, creating a false sense of security. We know that the households living along dykes are the least to heed to any kind of early warning. Despite this, governments continue to argue for dykes and levees than putting strict land use regulations in place.

The big elephant(s) in the room!
We say it is often the big elephant this is ignored in the room and in urban room I see several elephants (after all cities are big!). We are still to come to terms with the dilemma of growing vertical vs horizontal, our current models of eco cities have failed to deliver the promise of reducing external resource dependence for food and water and cities continue to swell by uncontrolled migrants living under sub-par living conditions and dignity than rural areas offer.

If you ask me ‘is everything about urban areas so bad?’, then I would say no! Not at least from the point of view of our fight against global warming. Research has shown that urban areas can provide some of the best means of maximizing GHG mitigation with relatively large adaptation co-benefits. Among other things, this especially comes from managing water consumption and demand such that urban areas can make meaningful contribution to the food-water-energy nexus more than any other single solution (I am not exaggerating). Cities can offer more if we can answer these questions:

Q1. How to make cities closed loop systems (in terms of resource dependence). Cities today have grown so big that their presence is felt hundreds and thousands of miles away from them. Are we practical in seeking cities to be closed loop systems? Probably this question needs to be rephrased and re-emphasized differently.

Q2. How to uncover hidden vulnerabilities to make cities resilient? I will bet that we have more things to learn about cities than we think we need to learn and it is the hidden vulnerabilities that make cities an unknown in the equation of risk reduction. The sad part is we are learning about these hidden variables only after a devastating event. We certainly need more brainstorming than the storms we are going to face!

Q3. How and when cities will be forward looking? I expect most cities may have already started looking into the future since this question is more relevant to cities than any other places we live in and probably part of this question is linked to the dilemma of whether to go for vertical or horizontal. We know that city governments are lost in day-to-day matters and not even the strategic planning departments have time to think strategically. The city planning exercises outsourced  to consultants seldom touch the probable reality of the nearest possible future!

Let me end this ramble with a hope that cities will soon move away from incremental and short term engineering solutions to transformative social approaches which is where most solutions to our problems are hidden!

Don’t agree with me? Drop a line below! 

[Based on a talk delivered at Coastal Cities: Risks from Climate Change and Natural Hazards October 5, 2013; Room 510, Kyoto International Conference Center, Japan. The presentation is available at http://pub.iges.or.jp/modules/envirolib/view.php?docid=4747].

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