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Hot, Flooded, and Crowded: Coping with Climate Change in Cities Today

25 Oct 2012
Ashvin Dayal, Managing Director, Asia, The Rockefeller Foundation; Anna Brown, Associate Director, The Rockfeller Foundation,
Cities of the developing world provide a critical route out of poverty for millions of rural poor, but these massive concentrations of human activity also face unprecedented new risks and vulnerabilities that we are only beginning to understand. Already ill-equipped to meet existing needs, the effects of climate change on rapid urban expansion add a new layer of challenges and complexity. How can cities continue to grow physically and thrive economically in the face of the monumental challenges resulting from changes in our climate?

This is precisely the problem that catalyzed the launch of the Rockefeller Foundation supported Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN). ACCCRN is a network of ten core cities in Asia, implementing a range of activities that collectively will improve the ability of the cities to withstand, prepare for, and recover from the projected impacts of climate change and climate variability. The approaches taken are determined by the local needs and priorities of each city. ACCCRN brings particular focus to improving the resilience of poor and vulnerable populations to climate change impacts. These tend to be the socio-economic groups that feel climate change impacts the most and are the least equipped to deal with them. The Network is also regional and global in its outlook and outreach. A key objective is to share its success stories and encourage cities around the world to replicate effective activities, for example in how land-use and infrastructure planning in a town can incorporate climate data to ensure that investments will stay safe well into the future. This requires engagement from diverse sectors and actors, including national and municipal government decision makers, civil society leaders, international donor agencies and private firms.

While global climate change models have become increasingly sophisticated, the ability to extrapolate with precision and certainty how changes in temperature and precipitation will affect local communities and economies remains elusive. Advancements in science to downscale climate data to smaller geographic units - like cities - still have a long way to go. More work is needed for a city to generate scenarios and models that will give town planners, engineers and communities the kind of detailed information they need to ensure that spending on infrastructure and other investments related to building urban climate change resilience will stand the test of time.

However, even without perfect information, the scientific data we have today can map how climate change is already affecting cities - their infrastructure, community development and business operations. Indeed, it is not so much precision that we need but the capability to plan in a dynamic manner, given the new, unfolding uncertainties. Warmer temperatures, rising incidence of heat waves and drought, longer periods of water shortages, increased and increasingly concentrated rainfall levels causing more severe and prolonged flooding of urban drainage systems, public health outbreaks - these are the climate change realities that city managers are struggling with today. Addressing these issues can, at first, appear overwhelming. Through ACCCRN, we have found that connecting the pressures of today with the challenges of the future creates an entry point for city stakeholders to undertake resilience building measures. In this sense, engaging governments as well as local community and business leaders in building an urban resilience strategy can be an extremely productive process.

Take an example from the Indian ACCCRN city, Surat. The devastating 2006 floods are estimated to have caused $4 billion worth of damage. Mobilized by this catastrophe, the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC), along with local businesses, the NGO community and the ACCCRN India national partner, TARU Leading Edge, have comprehensively mapped the climate-related impacts and vulnerabilities facing the city to improve, among other things, how water from the upstream Ukai Reservoir is managed. By strengthening coordination between the SMC, the Narmada Water Resources Management Authority and the Gujarat State Disaster Management Agency, and conducting more sophisticated rainfall and hydrological modeling, Surat aims to create an entirely new system to manage water releases prior to reaching peak levels. This could have a profound effect on mitigating the need for a sudden release due to extreme and intense rainfall events, which are likely to increase in frequency and severity as a result of climate change. This will be a carefully calibrated effort, balancing the needs of power generation, irrigation and flood prevention, all of which impose conflicting pressures on the way the reservoir is managed. The resulting improvements in water release management will give the city an extra 2-3 days of respite time to prepare for floods, enabling vulnerable communities to be relocated and valuable assets to be repositioned. This won’t necessarily stop the floods, but it will give the city and its inhabitants a new and dynamic capability to manage the situation, especially as conditions change over time. This is what building climate change resilience is all about.

With an urban infrastructure boom across much of the developing world still in a nascent stage even in the larger metros, we know that hundreds of billions of dollars of public and private spending will be invested over the decades ahead in housing, transport, drainage and other infrastructures. Decisions made today will shape our cities for the next 50 to 100 years - a time horizon in which we know climate change impacts will grow in severity. We have the opportunity to incorporate what we already know about climate change which, for example, in relation to land use management would not allow built infrastructure in low-lying flood plains or across the natural surface run-off contours in a city. We have the knowledge to design drainage systems that incorporate a range of future rainfall projections; and there is enormous opportunity to innovate with new forms of construction and design that ensures housing for low-income families can withstand floods, extreme storms and heat pressures that we know will worsen in the future.

Perhaps by acknowledging how critical it is to incorporate a long-term view in our urban planning - one that accounts for climate change - and the key role that local governments play on the ground in aligning community needs with civil society and business solutions, building more climate resilient cities can also be a catalyst for a wider transformation in urban development that is clearly needed across much of the developing world.