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Climate Change Threatens the Poor in Cities

Analysis by Manipadma Jena

BANGKOK, Mar 27 2012 (IPS) - India, like other Asian countries, has focused its climate change adaptation strategies on rural and urban areas while neglecting the urban fringes, say experts.

Peri-urban areas are characterised by haphazard, accelerated expansion and are farthest from basic urban services and infrastructure, according to United Nations-Habitat’s ‘The State of Asian Cities 2010-11’. By 2020, of the projected 4.2 billion urban population of the world, 2.2 billion will be living in Asia, many in peri-urban areas, the U.N. report says.

“These are places where nobody is in charge,” said Stephen Tyler of the United States-based Institute of Social and Environmental Transition (ISET), while in the Thai capital to attend the Mar. 12–13 Asia Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum.

“Populations residing in peri-urban areas are most vulnerable to climate change because they have neither the modern infrastructure, clean water, and sanitation available in urban areas nor the ecosystems that rural folks fall back on,” Tyler told IPS.

“Climate change exacerbates land and resettlement issues in Asia,” said Youssef Nassef, coordinator of the adaptation programme with the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and a delegate.

“In India, while the municipality’s administration area is demarcated, responsibility for peri-urban areas is fragmented. Where are the policy levers for peri-urban areas, for example, in India’s policy?” Nassef asks.

India is not alone in neglecting peri-urban areas. Last year’s devastating floods in Thailand provided a good example of such neglect.

“What is Bangkok and what is not Bangkok is the question being asked after the flood,” said Jonathan Shaw, executive director of the Bangkok-based Asian Institute of Technology.

“Bangkok’s urban sprawl spreads seamlessly to its suburbs, yet the business district with large foreign direct investment got priority flood protection,” Shaw said. “The flood manifested the fissures in the urban and peri-urban.”

“People here think the political factor played a major role in flood intervention. While two-tonne sand bags were available to prevent flooding into Bangkok city, the suburban provinces got only small sandbags which failed to keep the water out,” Shaw said.

Cities that are not socially sustainable can never be environmentally sustainable, said Marcus Moench, who heads ISET. “The vulnerability of any city is directly proportional to the quantum of marginalised populations and to the exposure.”

“As India urbanises, we see more and more poverty pockets because it is urbanising in an unorganised way,” ISET researcher Shashikant Chopde told IPS.

According to India’s federal ministry of urban development, by 2051, 48 percent or 820 million people of its estimated 1.7 billion will be living in 6,500 urban settlements.

For these new arrivals from ‘push migration’ dynamics with low-skill sets and earning ability, peri-urban areas are preferable to the crowded and expensive city cores.

In a report launched at the Bangkok forum, the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) said that by 2050 some 1.4 billion Indians will be living in areas experiencing negative climate change impacts.

India’s coastal region will become “further vulnerable to climate change impacts due to high urbanisation, rural–urban migration and dwindling agricultural productivity,” says the AsDB report titled ‘Addressing Climate Change and Migration in Asia and the Pacific’.

“If migration is not carefully planned and assisted, there is a serious risk that it can turn into maladaption, i.e. leave people more vulnerable to environmental changes,” AsDB report warns.

Chopde says that in India while many city slum dwellers are eligible, under the National Mission on Sustainable Habitat, for low-cost safe shelters, clean water and sanitation, inhabitants on the city fringes are unable to avail of the schemes thanks to blurred administrative boundaries.

“This is because they are included neither under rural nor within urban local governance systems,” says Chopde. “As cities grow, peripheral lands are becoming increasingly attractive to commercial developers, and once again, low-income informal settlements are pushed away to cities’ new outer periphery.”

“If a city’s master plans are strictly followed, peri-urban areas could be developed for climate-smart farming, helping to prevent city water logging.

“Since much of the vegetable supply comes from a city’s fringes, livelihood security for peri-urban inhabitants and food security for city dwellers could be ensured.” Chopde suggests.

Experts at the Bangkok meet said that the challenge of building climate resilient societies could no longer be the responsibility of governments alone.

Saleemul Huq, who heads the Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development, said at a media roundtable here that countries need to “build social capital by training a wide cross-section of people to better prepare for climate change at a time of unprecedented urbanisation.”

While there is no cookie-cutter solution, Anna Lindstedt, Sweden’s ambassador for climate change, stressed that planning and adaptation strategies should be context- specific and tailored to localities.

“The process of engaging diverse partners, of building a shared understanding of climate risks and urban vulnerability, of developing joint and separate interventions and building a shared platform for ongoing learning is more valuable to the resilience building effort than any other strategy itself,” states ISET’s 2011 publication ‘Catalysing Urban Climate Resilience’.

The report discusses study-based climate vulnerability and resilience -building strategies of a network of cities in India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand supported the by Rockefeller Foundation through Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network.

For India, the best bet is still community-driven development, says Bharat Dahiya, researcher on peri- urban areas at U.N.-Habitat’s Asia-Pacific regional office in Bangkok. “In India, self-help, voluntarily initiated by civil society, even if ad hoc in nature, is of crucial importance,” Dahiya said.

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