Adaptation to climate change faces major constraints in urban areas
Research published by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) warns that it will be much harder to 'adapt' urban areas to protect them from new and increasing risks from climate change than is currently thought.
The report, whose authors include three contributors to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, urges governments and international agencies to take adaptation in urban areas much more seriously.
It says that if action is taken now, there are large cumulative benefits and large cost savings, including avoidance of premature death, injury and property loss.
As climate change intensifies, urban centres will face growing risks from storms, floods, heat waves and water shortages. Most of the nations and cities most at risk are the poorest nations and cities that have contributed least to the problem.
"Millions of people live in cities that lack adequate protective infrastructure such as storm drains and where local governments lack the capacity to adapt," says David Satterthwaite of IIED. "The international agencies concerned with climate change do not understand the extent of these constraints."
"It is hopelessly inappropriate to take methods developed in high income countries and apply them in low and middle income nations," says Satterthwaite. "You cannot estimate the cost of 'adapting' infrastructure to climate change if there is no infrastructure there."
This report was prepared by five authors – three climate change specialists (Saleemul Huq, Hannah Reid, both of IIED, and Patricia Romero Lankao, of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research), one specialist in disaster preparedness (Mark Pelling of King's College London) and one urban planner (David Satterthwaite, IIED).
The death toll and other costs from disasters have grown rapidly over the past few decades, and 95 per cent of all deaths from disasters over the past 25 years have been in low- and middle-income nations — and very few businesses or households in these nations have insurance to help them recover.
No one knows precisely what contribution global warming has made to this rapid growth — but as Mark Pelling notes: "Almost all the growth in hazards since 1950 has been in the storms, floods and droughts whose frequency or intensity climate change is likely to increase, rather than earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or other disasters not related to extreme weather events. 2007 has already been marked as amongst the worst years on record for extreme weather disasters."
Saleemul Huq adds that: "The earlier action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to begin reducing vulnerability to the many impacts of climate change, the lower the costs. Adapting to climate change now need not draw resources from other pressing tasks."
City governments faced with urban poverty and weak infrastructure may find it difficult to take action on climate threats seen as uncertain and in the future. But there are three good reasons for taking action now:
- Modest adjustments to investment that prioritise low-carbon technologies can, over time, produce much lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions, even in cities with booming economies. The concentration of people and production in cities facilitates many investments and actions that keep down energy requirements for buildings, transport systems and enterprises, and support waste reduction.
- Much of what needs to be done to reduce risks from climate change also reduces other risks; for instance, better drainage systems also protect health and reduce risks of flooding and waterlogging and good health care systems can also support disaster preparedness and rapid post-disaster response.
- Much adaptation does not require additional government expenditure but is achieved by changing regulatory frameworks that influence individual, household, community, company and corporate investments — for instance adjustments to building regulations, land use plans, land subdivision regulations, pollution control and waste management.
"Investments to counter climate change and protect cities from its effects must work with low-income groups," says Satterthwaite. "This means fully involving them in plans to reduce flooding and other risks. Low-income groups may be prepared to move from hazardous sites, but only if they are involved in decisions about where to move and how the move is organised."
"But there are often good possibilities for reducing risks in the sites and informal settlements they already live in – through better infrastructure and housing improvements," adds Satterthwaite. "Getting governments to work with such groups usually means a fundamental change in government practice."
These adjustments will not be easy since most will face opposition from powerful vested interests. Furthermore, as Hannah Reid notes, "too many policy-makers at national and city levels see climate change as an environmental issue or a global issue that is not their concern. Too many climate change specialists have little knowledge of development, as their approach focuses on reducing greenhouse emissions or generating funding 'for adaptation' with little understanding of what constrains effective local adaptation and how this can be addressed."
There is a profound unfairness globally in who generates climate change and who is at risk. As Patricia Romero Lankao notes: "Tens of millions of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean have homes and livelihoods at risk from sea-level rise and storms, yet they have made very little contribution to greenhouse gas emissions."
For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:
Contact details of authors:
David Satterthwaite (email@example.com), Saleemul Huq (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Hannah Reid, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED): Tel: +44 (0) 207 388 2117
Mark Pelling, Reader in Human Geography, Department of Geography, King's College London: Tel: +44 (0)20 7848 2462
Patricia Romero Lankao, NCAR: National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, USA: Tel: +1303 497 8104
NOTES TO EDITORS
Details of this report: David Satterthwaite, Saleemul Huq, Mark Pelling, Hannah Reid and Patricia Lankao Romero (2007), Adapting to Climate Change in Urban Areas: The possibilities and constraints in low- and middle-income nations, IIED Working Paper, IIED, London, 90 pages.
The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see: http://www.iied.org).
Earlier this year, research by IIED and partners showed that 634 million people — one-tenth of the global population — live in coastal areas that lie under ten metres above sea level, putting them at risk from rising sea level (see: http://www.iied.org/mediaroom/releases/070328coastal.html).
Constraints on adaptation
Adapting urban and rural areas to climate change is not an alternative to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation); indeed, mitigation is urgently needed because of the limits to what adaptation can protect from climate change’s impacts. These limits rise constantly, as long as there is no international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The future of many major cities on the African coast, in many small islands and within the Asian mega-deltas are in doubt if no such international agreement is reached soon. India, China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand and Egypt are among the nations with the largest urban population within the low-elevation coastal zone.
The lack of local adaptive capacity adds to the constraints, as so many city governments lack the competence and capacity to be able to adapt. In Asia, Africa and parts of Latin America, many cities have up to half their population living in informal settlements, lacking piped water supplies, paved roads, sewers, storm and surface drains and household waste collection (important for drainage since without this, drains get blocked). Most of the people at greatest risk from storms and floods live in such informal settlements. Indeed, it is common for such settlements to be at greatest risk from floods as they are on floodplains or on the coast or next to rivers or on unstable slopes because these are the only sites where they can find accommodation. Safer sites are too expensive for them. City governments often refuse to provide these settlements with any infrastructure and bulldoze them, when they can. Thus, many city politicians and civil servants have antagonistic relationships with the very people who are most at risk – yet who also provide the city with its cheap and flexible labour force and provide city businesses and consumers with a great range of goods and services. Without fundamental changes in the way that city governments work with their low-income populations, effective adaptation to climate change is impossible.
The risks that climate change is bringing
For cities, perhaps the most obvious increased risk comes from the increased number and intensity of extreme weather events, such as heavy rainstorms, cyclones and hurricanes. Cities on the coast are obviously most at risk from sea-level rise, but perhaps the greatest risk comes from a combination of storm surges and high tides. Rising sea levels may also mean rising water tables that undermine building foundations and increased saline water intrusion into valuable groundwater sources. Many non-coastal cities face serious problems with flooding – as they are beside rivers or in foothills of mountains and so vulnerable to more intense precipitation or snowmelt.
There are many other less dramatic but nonetheless serious risks, especially for low-income groups. Many cities will get less rainfall, and most will experience more heat waves and greater air pollution. Many city economies will suffer from decreasing possibilities for agriculture in their surroundings. Tourist cities on the coast will have their assets compromised by flood damage to coastal reefs and loss of beaches. Warmer average temperatures will expand the areas in which tropical diseases can occur. And while some changes may provide positive opportunities, these will require adaptation.
There are obvious worries that action to adapt to climate change will draw resources from other priorities. Most cities in Africa and Asia and many in Latin America have 33-50% of their population lacking good provision for water and sanitation. Around one billion urban inhabitants live in very poor quality shelter – often with two to three persons per room. In the face of this, policy makers may struggle to see action on climate change as a priority.
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