New York City skyline as seen from UN Headquarters. (Photo: UN)

Agent Provocateur is Global Insights oped section. This is being republished in English with the kind permission of El Pais on the occasion of World Cities Day, 31 October 2021. The event was celebrated at Luxor, Egypt, which is scheduled to host COP27 (September 2022) in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. (See related Global Insights article on the EPFL transnational Red Sea climate warming coral project)

While the international community races to tackle global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, our cities and towns must urgently prepare themselves for impact of climate crisis. Many urban areas around the world are already suffering from extreme temperatures, cyclones and floods and will continue to do so even if countries manage to achieve the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5℃, compared to pre-industrial levels.

Rising temperatures and changing rain patterns put a great strain on water and food supplies in urban centres and beyond while wildfires destroy homes and ecosystems. Heat waves, droughts and flooding also create serious health problems and it has been estimated that the climate crisis could drive more than a billion people from their homes in the next 30 years. (See Global Insights piece on the rising waters of Southeast Asian cities)

Sea level rise threatens almost two-thirds of the world’s cities with populations of over five million.  Global warming has led to glaciers melting and the expansion of warming water and the effect is causing coastal erosion and aggravates flooding, contamination of fresh water and intensifying storms and cyclones. (See Global Insights article on the Himalayas as the planet’s ‘third pole’)

More effective urban planning is vital if cities are to combat the impact of climate warming effectively. Favelha Rocinha, an overcrowded slum area in Rio de Jainaro in Brazil within view of the city’s gleaming high-rises. (Photo: UN)

Urban action: knowledge and effective policies remain a problem

Cities are now using a wide range of protective measures from sea walls and overflow chambers to using nature-based solutions such as mangroves and wetlands cope with flood waters. There are early warning systems and resilient structures, and the planting of trees along streets and vegetation on roofs to stop cities overheating and provide shade.

Within cities it is the urban poor, living in informal settlements or in precarious places such as hillsides prone to landslides that are most at risk. One billion people live in slums with few basic services or access to emergency support in times of crisis and are outside the ‘formal’ system of laws and regulations. Climate change can trap slum residents in a cycle of poverty and vulnerability, as each climate disaster results in loss of life, assets, and disruption, while it limits their abilities to cope and adapt.

Thousands of cities have started taking action, yet many local governments appear unprepared due to lack of knowledge, lack of relevant policies or plans, awareness, capacity or funding.  But the longer adaptation measures are postponed, the more costly and difficult they will become with latest figures showing that disasters, which are mostly climate-related, already cost the world economy USD 520 billion a year.

As with many other Asia cities, Dhaka in Bangladesh risks increased flood from more powerful storms and ocean rises as the global impact of climate warming increases. This is compacted by increased poverty in cities. On the left is Karial slum, an urban slum in Dhaka. One billion people – one out of three urban dwellers – are living in slum conditions. (Photo: UN)

Adaption and resilience: no one solution

There is of course no one size fits all. Adaptation and resilience measures will depend on the type of threat, the population, geography and economy. Because of these differences, climate change action planning must be participatory, gender-responsive and transparent.

This is why the theme for World Cities Day 2021 on 31 October focused on Adapting Cities for Climate Resilience.  A legacy of the Shanghai 2010 Expo, this is organized by UN-Habitat which partnered this year with the Government of Egypt. World Cities Day 2021 also coincided with the start of the Climate Change negotiations in Glasgow where cities and local governments increasingly claim a seat at the negotiation table.

UN-Habitat has helped cities build resiliency against climate change by tackling each distinct component: assessing resiliency problems; making policy and regulatory suggestions; proposing specific projects and programmes, linking city officials and urban designers with donors and financiers to fund implementation, and ensuring better coordination between city, national, and regional policymakers.

Recognising differences within cities and communities, UN-Habitat has provided different approaches that work best for a given country. Through its City Resilience Action Planning (CityRAP) toolkit, the Nairobi-based UN organization has adopted a participatory and community-based consultation process.

The Afghan capital has grown from one million people to an estimated 5-6 million today over the past 20 years. According to UNAMA, rampant development with poor city planning fueled by war, corruption, and overcrowding has placed this urban conglomeration into a high-risk area for flooding, earthquakes, water shortages and other detrimental aspects aggravated by the impact of climate warming. (Photo: UNAMA)

Developing city resilience around the world

Using CityRAP tool, the four-year Building Urban Climate Resilience in south-eastern Africa project that started last year, is rolling out a series of projects in Mozambique, Malawi, Madagascar, and Comoros offering various adaptation solutions, from flood-and-cyclone-proofing schools, improving drainage and solid waste management, to providing mangrove restoration and tree planting.

The City Resilience Global Programme uses data extraction and analysis to propose ideas and has worked with officials in the Brazilian city of Teresina and the Russian city of Yakutsk, known as the coldest city on earth, to design and implement city reliance profiles that, in part, tackle climate change challenges. The Programme has also been working with city of Barcelona, which in 2018 presented the Climate Plan, highlighted socio-economic aspects that were key for tackling social vulnerability and resilience. 

Adaptation has been a core principle for many of our projects in over 80 cities in nearly thirty countries in Africa, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Latin America and the Caribbean. We are also supporting cities to access climate finance, either directly or by supporting cities to present their projects to funding institutions.

Finally, UN-Habitat’s Flagship Programme, Building the Climate Resilience of the Urban Poor, has brought communities and their local authorities together, to find ways to reduce the impact of climate-related disasters. This includes the improvement of housing and infrastructure, where residents play an active part in planning, designing and implementing the slum upgrading process. It can range from building a drainage system or water supply to widening access roads, rebuilding homes and infrastructure.

Cities need to ensure resilience is part of their urban policy and investment plans. Acting now could improve the lives of city residents now and keep them safe in the future.

Maimunah Mohd Sharif is the Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) based in Nairobi, Kenya. Prior to joining Habitat in 2018, she was mayor of Penang Island City Council in Malaysia.

Maimunah Mohd Sharif

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