Asia is going through an unprecedented wave of urbanization. All the while, climate change is making many of these fast-growing cities more vulnerable to disasters. The result is a growing cry among development policymakers to build urban “resilience.” Our research, drawn from work in several cities across South and Southeast Asia, suggests the challenges to building resilience are not technical, but political.
Cities already stressed
Global capital flows are funding incredible building efforts in these new cities. But much of the time, we discovered, development is done without adequate oversight. Many cities already struggle to maintain core systems and services like water, energy, and transportation. Evidence is mounting that critical ecological limits have been exceeded.
Preparation for natural disasters is made difficult for a variety of reasons. Stove-piped, single-sector government departments are unable or unwilling to work with one another. Land use planning meant to direct construction and zoning frequently reflects decisions that have already been made and implemented in isolation. Short-term outlooks and commercial interests prevent long-term, comprehensive planning.
Confront power dynamics or risk exacerbating conflict
For example, it is technically easy to decide that to reduce flood risk, a city should widen and dredge its canals. To do so though, slum communities may have to be moved, and if the people in these communities don’t have formal legal rights to their land, there may be no compensation. At the end of the day, the resilience of central business districts may have been improved but it’s been done without consent from vulnerable communities, further shifting the balance of power and wealth in one group’s favor.
We found there is often an implicit assumption by development policymakers that urban governance is representative and accountable. This is simply not true in many Asian cities, and intervening in the name of resilience has the potential to do significant harm in many places.
Merely adding new funding streams risks reinforcing undemocratic and inequitable processes. Particularly in cities where the poor and unemployed make up significant proportions of the population, doing so also risks deepening resentment and increasing the potential for conflict.
Some potential triggers for violence lie in the destruction of slums inhabited by untenured residents, either through government policy or environmental changes, like rising sea levels. From India to Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia, slum dwellers have been forcibly removed and attacked when they resist, a form of dispossession as a means of accumulation.
Process before projects
There are many points of access to build resilience within cities, but the selection of entry points is a political decision with deep social implications.
Resilience theory tends not to address issues of power and politics effectively. If we are to apply resilience thinking to the highly politicized and contested context of Asia’s new urban areas, we need to redress this. It is essential that development policymakers recognize the political dimensions of the places they are working in, and make an explicit commitment to rights, social justice, and equity.
By failing to address critical governance gaps, we risk driving policy that might be framed in the language of resilience, but in effect acts against social justice and drives further elite resource capture.
A longer version of this article appeared on New Security Beat. For more information on the topic, read “Mainstreaming Urban Climate Resilience Into Policy and Planning: Reflections From Asia,” published in 'Urban Climate’ in March 2014.