Opinion Author: Jim Jarvie Comments

An advisory released this August by the US National Weather Service warned this year’s El Niño could be  among the strongest ever recorded, lasting well into the first few months of 2016.

Facing an El Niño of this scale, urbanised regions risk exposure to pollution from lit forests and plantations, droughts and overexploitation of freshwater resources, environmental degradation and heat waves. All of these will undoubtedly have costs that disproportionately fall upon the poor and most vulnerable — the people with the least resources to adapt.

Not enough is being done to protect communities against the effects of global climate change. It is essential that we now move the conversation and policymaking towards meaningful long-term actions.

Greater awareness is needed on the immense challenges of urban climate change resilience (UCCR) and what it means for development and stability. UCCR is the capacity of cities — its citizens, communities, institutions, businesses and systems — to learn and adapt to climate-related stresses and shocks. Storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts can disrupt entire communities and regions, and if UCCR challenges are not addressed with effective action, the consequences are lethal.

Escalating extreme weather events

El Niño-related weather events do not stand alone. Across South Asia, recent heat waves caused death tolls of over 1,000 people in Karachi, Pakistan and more than 2,000 fatalities across India.

In the cyclone season, agencies are preparing for coastal disasters, while recalling other devastating events such as Cyclone Nargis that killed over 138,000 people in Myanmar in 2008 and Typhoon Haiyan that killed thousands in the Philippines in 2013. This year, we have already experienced five super typhoons, including Typhoon Chan-hom that required the evacuation of millions of people in China and caused nearly US$1 billion in economic losses.

The worsening of weather-related disasters in the Asia-Pacific is overwhelming in size and scope; the regional trends and statistics can be mind-numbing.

According to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, more than 1.2 billion people in Asia have been subjected to weather hazards through 1,215 disasters since the year 2000. Two million people were killed between 1970 and 2011, representing 75 per cent of total global weather-related casualties. The Asia-Pacific region represents more than 85 per cent of global economic exposure to typhoons, over 120 million people. The average number of people exposed to annual flooding has risen to over 64 million.

Climate science strongly indicates that global climate change is exacerbating extreme weather events. Furthermore, these disasters are occurring while many countries are also facing rapid urbanisation.

About 54 per cent of the world is already urban-based and this number is expected to grow to 66 per cent by 2050. With haphazard urban growth in vulnerable coastal regions — areas with the highest risks and proportions of poverty, and the least options — the accumulating impact of climate change will only increase death tolls and economic losses over time.

Taking proactive solutions

A growing number of organisations and communities are beginning to address these problems. However, all too often their efforts are constrained by short-term competing priorities and goals that hinder long-term efforts that are critical to protecting cities and citizenry. For example, short-term interests can often usurp land use planning that should form the cornerstones of city defences against risk. Many cities are already struggling to maintain core systems and services like water, energy and transportation.

Successful UCCR is difficult to achieve for a variety of reasons. Government departments are sometimes unable to effectively collaborate with one another. Commercial interests may seek to protect their own resources independently, but lack avenues for collective action that would be more efficient and productive, especially for the broader community.

It is because disasters such as typhoons disrupt entire regional activity and supply chains that proactive solutions demand the engagement of all stakeholders, to share learnings and to build cooperative efforts.

The Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, is comprised of practitioners and institutions committed to changing this paradigm through the creation of shared knowledge resources and by influencing local agendas to build inclusive UCCR. Cities need to be well informed of the risks they face and how these risks are changing, so they can allocate resources before a disaster strikes.

From Indonesia to India, projects have already been piloted with tremendous success in making cities safer from the effects of climate change. For example, in Semarang, Indonesia, ACCCRN partner, Mercy Corps, has implemented a flood forecasting and warning system. Since the project’s inception, flood forecasting accuracy has increased to 90 per cent, allowing the community to take precautions and evacuate safely.

In Hat Yai, a Thai city that faces a growing threat of flooding (US$320 million in damages in 2010), ACCCRN's Thailand Environment Institute assessed the situation and enacted a plan that has seen results. Real-time video of water levels and better rainfall and weather data are now available citywide. Success stories in Semarang and Hat Yai can be replicated elsewhere and improve outcomes.

ACCCRN has taken steps to move this agenda forward and it has incorporated UCCR thinking into city planning and budgeting for a number of cities across the region. Others groups are also starting to take action.

However, this is not enough. Across the region, more awareness is needed of the risks Asia faces. Disaster response measures must include more considerations and more actions to address the even greater challenges that lie on the road ahead.

Time and resources are limited, but the destruction that we are seeing from weather-related events is part of a worsening trend towards increasingly frequent and intense storms. There is no excuse for not preparing, and we must build on lessons already emerging in Asia to construct more inclusive UCCR.

Jim Jarvie is Mercy Corps’ network director transitioning the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network to a practitioner-based membership platform. He previously led the development of Mercy Corps’ global programs in climate change and environment, focusing on South-East Asia. He is a biologist with 20 years of experience in South-East Asia, working on natural resource management, conservation and conflict; ethical timber trading; and protected area design.

This article was originally posted by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.

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