Amid Climate Disasters, South Asia’s Cities Need to Focus on Resilience

The last three months have been disastrous for large parts of South Asia. In India and Bangladesh alone, over 1,200 have lost their lives to flooding and 950,000 houses have been destroyed, affecting more than 41 million people. In Nepal, at least 143 people have died, and more than 460,000 people have been displaced from their homes.

It doesn’t help that the region is one of the wettest in the world and receives an average annual rainfall of 1,000 millimeters (39.4 inches). The situation is worsened by the lack of preparedness among South Asian cities. In dealing with Hurricane Harvey, while the United States has an institutionalized and a fully functional disaster response system in place, cities in Nepal and Bangladesh simply do not have the resources to invest in them, let alone deploy them effectively.

Even a global metropolis like Mumbai is found lacking. On August 29, the day that Mumbai received 331.4 mm rainfall, the highest in a decade, several reports emerged that dedicated emergency hotlines were either not functional or unreachable. In times of a natural disaster, most South Asian cities with their high population density can easily overwhelm emergency response providers. And while citizens are angered and frustrated by the inadequate response of their governments, municipal corporations have put their hands up in despair arguing that their best efforts will prove to be inadequate in the face of nature’s fury. They might have a point. The southern Indian city of Bengaluru received a record 30 percent of its annual rainfall on a single day (August 15), the highest in the past century.

Climate-induced disasters will increasingly be viewed as the norm rather than the exception in the South Asian region. Rapid and unplanned urbanization over the last decade has also meant that cities have accumulated serious hazard exposure over a very short period of time. In a country like India, out of a total geographic area of 329 million hectares, about 45.64 million hectares are flood-prone. Annually, an average of 7.55 million hectares of land is affected and 1,560 lives are lost. The underlying lesson is that in the face of great natural disaster risk, governmental response will have to become more anticipatory than reactive.

Investing in Resilience

The Asian Development Bank defines urban resilience as the capacity of cities to function so that the people living and working in cities — particularly the poor and vulnerable — survive and thrive no matter what stresses or shocks they encounter.

For example, a robust resilience strategy for the city of Mumbai would focus on improving its storm water management systems. After the 2005 floods (over 900 mm rainfall) that ravaged Mumbai, the city sought to improve its drainage systems, develop early warning systems, widen waterways and river beds, as well as amend building codes to combat unauthorized sprawl. However, despite identifying these risks and potential solutions over 12 years ago, Mumbai still found itself submerged and brought to a standstill, with rainfall three times lesser in intensity than the 2005 floods.

There are three possible explanations for this phenomenon. The first is that while identifying risks may seem a straightforward audit process, implementing the solutions is a lot more complex owing to serious governance deficits. This could range from incompetency of the bureaucracy to corruption, as well as general apathy. In a recent damning report, India’s federal audit agency (CAG) reported that only 349 of 4,862 India’s large dams have emergency disaster action plans in place and even funds allocated for this exercise have remained untouched.

Secondly, the speed and intensity required to act has not kept pace with the frequency of climate induced disasters. Many stakeholders are working in silos, which only delays the reform process.

Moreover, in Mumbai, storm water management as a public policy agenda is only relevant for 1-2 weeks every year. However, developing flood resilience is not a one-off step that can be achieved over a short, fixed period time. As the ADB points out in its report, there is no single action that will make a city resilient to climate change. Resilience is instead achieved through a number of actions, building upon each other over time. Resilience can be best viewed as a philosophy, principle or a mindset. The need of the hour is for local governments to espouse this mindset in every planning decision they make.

The third explanation is that in overcrowded and megacities like Mumbai, there is little scope to make sweeping changes, despite having the financial resources to effect this change. Unlike tier two and tier three cities — where it is possible to make fresh spatial planning, infrastructure and economic investment decisions keeping in view long term resilience principles — big cities like Mumbai, New Delhi, Kathmandu or Dhaka have already made these decisions. Hence, resilience measures that are adopted into the planning of a big city often appear as cosmetic, small change in the larger scheme of things.

Bouncing Back

Investing in resilient infrastructure does not come cheap and funding remains a key constraint. While the risks cannot be mitigated wholly, exposure of the vulnerable population to these risks can be greatly reduced. Investing in early response systems, reservoir management and storm-resistant housing have been particularly successful in several Southeast Asian cities.

The private sector also has a very important role to play in building a city’s resilience. For example, if a city in Bangladesh decides to shop for catastrophe insurance, potential insurers which will include some of the world’s leading insurance companies would assess the city’s vulnerabilities through a systematic process and make a decision on whether the city can be insured or not.

Bangladeshi cities being highly prone to natural disasters might have to pay out an annual premium that may be higher than a city in Sri Lanka would pay, owing to reduced risk. Insurance companies also have the option of further reducing its exposure by selling a portion of its risk to reinsurers. International financial institutions like the World Bank could also set up corpus funds to provide guarantees against premium payments.

Insuring for natural disasters is vital to post-disaster recovery. However, this is by no means an easy solution. With very high physical vulnerability in South Asia and large scale informal habitation,  insurers might demand that the city first invest in a comprehensive disaster management strategy as well as undertake a whole set of reforms before the private insurance industry comes in.

The path to recovery post disaster is a long and arduous one. Overcoming some of these challenges requires immense political will, increased coordination among the different stakeholders and most important of all, great urgency.

This piece originally appeared in The Diplomat

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About Nandan Sharalaya