Building Resilient Cities in Asia

ADB has supported upgrades of the metro system in Tbilisi, Georgia, since 2010.
ADB has supported upgrades of the metro system in Tbilisi, Georgia, since 2010.

By Vijay Padmanabhan

Informal settlers, water, and public transport are the three main challenges for Asia’s cities.

With over 40% of the population in Asia and the Pacific now living in cities and contributing 80% of the region’s GDP, urban population growth poses significant challenges for governments. By 2050, 65% of the region’s population will live in urban areas, attracted by the prospect of higher-earning jobs and a better future for their families.

Basic urban services are already stressed. Exacerbated by the impacts of extreme weather and their own poor credit worthiness, local governments are struggling to give citizens access to quality public services.

One of the most pressing challenges is what to do with informal settlers. About 120,000 people move to Asian cities each day, but unplanned growth and urban sprawl implies that most informal settlers, a significant portion of the urban population, lack access to basic services like water or sanitation primarily due to lack of land tenure.

Rapidly depleting water resources is another big problem. Recent estimates indicate that up to 3.4 billion people could be living in water-stressed urban areas of Asia-Pacific by 2050, which will affect their health and livelihoods.

Finally, urban population growth is increasing the demand for public transport. Rapid urban growth makes establishing and expanding transport infrastructure even more critical. They can lock a city into a certain development path that affects the efficiency of the transport network, the resident’s quality of life, urban energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions.

More often than not, the high costs of building mass rapid transit systems encourage government agencies to build more roads or expand existing ones. This results in even more traffic congestion and depleting green cover by cutting trees, which undermines the urban ecosystem.

ADB seeks to address these three challenges—informal settlers, water, and urban population growth—by focusing on three key factors: the economy, the environment, and equity, as well as by adopting a cross-sector and thematic approach.

  Urban population growth raising demand for public transport

Here is how we are applying this vision through our projects, and some of what we’re learning along the way.

1. Support the urban informal economy

Many cities in Asia need to improve their urban ecosystems and provide the marginalized with access to better services. ADB is working with a consortium led by Monash University in Melbourne and the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities on nature-based solutions to provide frontline urban services such as sanitation, drainage and flood prevention solutions in the cities of Makassar in Indonesia, and Suva in Fiji.

Supported by ADB’s Urban Resilience Fund and the Wellcome Trust, the Revitalization of Informal Settlements and their Environment (RISE) project, to be implemented from 2017-2022, will adopt a participatory planning, design and construction approach to improve urban services. Our experience with urban services planning has shown that it is crucial for communities to be involved in building urban resilience through sustainable and environmentally-friendly solutions.

The outcomes of the RISE Project will help inform similar projects supported by ADB’s Urban Resilience Fund in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Viet Nam. They will also provide lessons on how to address land tenure issues in compact and densely populated informal settlements.

2. Expand water security

Identifying new water sources is becoming increasingly difficult. Consequently, securing water in urban areas now requires us to “generate” more use from existing sources by improving the efficiency with which utilities manage available water.

ADB has provided approximately $700 million of assistance to improve the operations of the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewage Association (DWASA) in Bangladesh. Together with support from other donors, this has helped to transform DWASA from a struggling water utility into an efficient urban service provider.

In just a decade, the city has reduced its non-revenue water or water leakage from 50% to 15%, and increased revenue collection from 64% to 98%. The success of this project demonstrates starkly how leakages can be rectified by introducing district metered areas to break down urban water networks to small, manageable hydraulic zones. It has led other Asian cities to replicate Dhaka’s approach.

3. Improve urban mobility

Since 2010, ADB has supported upgrades of the metro system in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and linked its road network with the rapidly developing satellite city of Rustavi. Feasibility studies to develop a bus rapid transit system and further upgrade the metro system are currently in the works.

  Smartphone data informs intelligent transport solutions

We also have a knowledge partnership with the Austrian Institute of Technology, Vienna, to develop intelligent transport solutions by using multimodal transport data collected through smartphones and support the feasibility studies.

The goal is also to give more attention to addressing social inclusion—for example, by incorporating pro-poor aspects, fuller consideration of gender issues, and use of tariff and subsidy options—to make transport services accessible and affordable.

Using latest research to improve urban services

Working with various stakeholders, including academia and the private sector, has allowed ADB to pilot the latest research and development in urban services.

The informal economy accounts for roughly two-thirds of Asia-Pacific’s non-agriculture employment. One takeaway from our experience in developing policies affecting the informal economy is the importance of gender issues and of property rights for those involved in this economy.

Focusing on the governance and finance of local governments and utilities is crucial to improve the standard of the core services they deliver. Re-use of wastewater has also emerged as a crucial element of our support to water utilities.

By designing transport systems that bring people closer to goods and services, we hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. Drawing on experience in transport solutions for regions with hot climates, our goal is to use the right of way for trees and green cover, as well as stormwater harvesting for use in urban irrigation and groundwater recharge.