The Urban Climate Resilience in Southeast Asia (UCRSEA) Partnership: A critical perspective on climate change issues in developing cities

September 29, 2017 by 1

By Gwenn Pulliat, Postdoctoral Fellow, UCRSEA PartnershipMunk School of Global Affairs

Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas and this share could reach 70% by 2050. Moreover, most of this urban growth will take place in the Global South. But in this context of developing countries, what is the “city” we are talking about?

As a result of the city expansion within the world urban system as new focal points, strong attention has been paid to megacities and emerging “world cities”, such as Bangkok or Jakarta or Ho Chi Minh City. But beyond the well-known picture of megacities lined with skyscrapers and criss-crossed by congested freeways, the urban phenomenon actually stretches out throughout Southeast Asia. Specifically, secondary cities in the region have experienced a rapid and intense urbanization process, combining significant demographic growth and noteworthy urban sprawl – or what can be called the ‘ordinary city’, following Jennifer Robinson. Those cities, however, have been given little attentionand it is therefore important to explore the spatial, social and economic dynamics of these spaces. Within the climate change field, the 2014 IPCC report for Asia recognizes that “more research is needed on impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation in urban  settlements,  especially  cities  with  populations  of  less than 500,000”. There is a need to understand how climate change impacts these currently understudied areas.

Ninh Binh, Vietnam, 2012

In Southeast Asia, concomitant economic integration of the region and the speed of development have contributed to substantial change in the urban environment and society. Typical is the change in livelihoods: lots of farmers in the surrounding areas of the cities either sell, lose or abandoned – at least temporarily – their lands to find a job in another economic sector. For instance, the commune of Trang An in Ninh Binh, Vietnam, also known as the “in-land Halong bay” due to its spectacular karstic landscape, is the site of an important ecotourism project. It is estimated that 90% of the former ricefields are now dedicated to the tourism development project, and many of its residents are now hired as boat rowers to carry tourists throughout the sites.

Trang An ecotourism complex, Ninh Binh, Vietnam, 2017

In Lao Cai, Vietnam, the State aims to develop a large, modernized city on the route from the port of Hai Phong and Hanoi to China. Therefore, large areas of periurban farmland are seized to build new urban wards, new roads or infrastructure. When it comes to livelihoods, local authorities explain that they try their best to help farmers become “urban workers” — although they admit that it is not that easy to accomplish given their skills and preferences.

The consequence of this pattern of urbanization is classical: the pressure on the environment and natural resources increases dramatically, infrastructures are insufficient and new risks emerge, such as increased drought or pollution-induced health issues. In Cambodia, investors are choosing to build  rather than pursue lower carbon-emitting energy sources. In a context where the price of global carbon credits is low, priority is given to increasing energy production while little attention is paid to the long-term consequences. At a local scale, another example of increasing risks relates to the air quality. In Battambang, Cambodia, the waste treatment capacity is low and, so far, most of the collected waste is burned. It results in increased toxic fumes that are harmful to people working on the dump site or living nearby.

A dump in Battambang, Cambodia, 2017

In this problematic context, climate change exacerbates challenges that are primarily related to uneven development. The poor are often the most exposed to hazards induced by climate change, have fewer assets available to cope with them and lack access to public services. A typical example relates to flooding: due to lower land prices, poorer communities are more likely to locate their homes in flood-prone areas and also have less capacity to construct flood protection. Therefore, the current pattern of development tends to increase their vulnerability. Bangkok is an example of the latter, depicting an extreme situation of climate injustice. In Khon Kaen, Thailand, the slum communities located along the railway tracks not only are more exposed to the risk of drought and lack access to water, but they are also given much less attention by public authorities in terms of services and land use because they are not officially entitled to be there.

In the Mekong region, lack of monitoring and/or evaluation, poor coordination among public authorities, wide-spread corruption and lack of transparency in governance are some of the factors leading to the current ineffective management of natural disasters. Hence, there is a need for more informed and inclusive governance processes, drawing upon experiences of a wide variety of stakeholders.

Map of selected cities. Author: Celia Braves

These issues are the focus of the UCRSEA Partnership. Indeed, the UCRSEA team seeks to analyze the interplay between urban growth, climate change and social inequalities in the Mekong region, one of the most rapidly urbanizing regions in the world. Eight secondary cities constitute the core of our project: Battambang and Koh Kong in Cambodia; Bago and Dawei in Myanmar; Khon Kaen and Mukdahan in Thailand; Ninh Binh and Lao Cai in Vietnam. Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SHRCC) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the partnership brings together researchers and graduate students from Canadian universities (University of Toronto, York University, the University of Ottawa), the Thailand Environment Institute and a range of other partner organizations in South East Asia. At UofT, the project, hosted by the Asian Institute, is based at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

And yes, we do have various research funding and internship opportunities!

Acknowledgment: Thanks to all the participants of the UCRSEA virtual seminar for their valuable feedback on the first version of this article.

Author of pictures: Gwenn Pulliat unless otherwise stated.