Why Asia’s growing coastal cities must invest in climate resilience

By Environment Team on Fri, 15 February 2013

The aftermath of Typhoon Ondoy in Metro Manila, Philippines.
The aftermath of Typhoon Ondoy in Metro Manila, Philippines.

Written by Nessim Ahmad, Director for Environment and Safeguards

I recently attended the “Coastal Cities At Risk 2013” conference organized by the Manila Observatory and the Coastal Cities at Risk Initiative supported by the Canadian Government. As many remarked, the venue was quite apt because Manila has the distinction of being one of seven cities globally judged to be at extreme risk from the combined impacts of climate change and climate-related disasters – and only Dhaka in Bangladesh is estimated to be at higher overall risk.

The climate risks facing the region’s great coastal cities have been a concern for some time. Back in 2007, in collaboration with the World Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, we embarked on a suite of studies to examine climate change impacts in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Manila. The studies used downscaled global climate projections, hydraulic models, and geographic information systems to assess the likely impacts through 2050, including increasingly severe and frequent tropical cyclones. The studies concluded that the costs to each city’s infrastructure and the economy - from major flooding events alone - could potentially reach billions of dollars annually, and that the urban poor would be at greatest risk.

Even before these studies had been completed, deadly floods struck Manila in 2009 associated with Typhoon Ondoy. Almost 500 lives were lost when the typhoon poured rainfall of over 400 millimeters in less than 24 hours. Then another major flooding hit Bangkok in late 2011, resulting in over 800 deaths and costing the Thai economy over $45 billion in damages. And, just a few weeks ago, severe flooding disrupted Jakarta, which led to the failure of key infrastructure and the inundation of much of the downtown area. If anything, our earlier studies may have proven too conservative in their assumptions and projected impacts, and the immediacy of these.

At the conference, I highlighted three key points that I want to share. The first point relates to the acute infrastructure deficit in urbanizing Asia. We estimate that our cities are growing by 120,000 people each day, which places severe stress on water supply, sanitation, flood control and public transport systems that are already woefully overstretched. ADB has estimated that almost $8 trillion are needed for infrastructure investment in the region through 2020, much of which will be needed in urban areas. But the kind of infrastructure built today will influence the trajectory of urban development for decades to come – for better or worse. The key point is that new infrastructure needs to be conceived and planned to minimize exposure and vulnerability of ever-expanding populations to climate-related disasters. 

Second, for city governments to make the right choices, climate and disaster risks require much more and better analysis. There is a need to bridge the gap between climate science and adaptation practice on the ground. Decision makers urgently need projections and scenarios at a scale and resolution that make sense for immediate planning purposes. ADB works with regional partners to organize a regional climate projections consortium and data facility to help respond to this. We envisage that the facility will operate as a regional public good to meet the needs around the region for climate data products. 

Third, cities need the capacity to transform this knowledge into improved development results. The required capacity ranges from establishment of sound design standards for urban infrastructure to enhanced capacity for disaster risk finance. Just last month, ADB released an interesting study entitled Investing in Resilience: Ensuring a Disaster-Resistant Future, which among other things, highlights the important role of disaster risk insurance, re-insurance, and catastrophe bonds. This is of course relevant to climate adaptation, and it is a good thing that the climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction communities are beginning to work together much more closely.