No Short-Term Solutions for Cities Facing Climate Change

A girl collects water from a ditch in Hubei Province, China, in Mar. 2008. In China, an estimated 300 million rural residents still have low access to safe drinking water, and 400 cities face water shortages. (China Photos/Getty Images)

This week, we asked our Sustainability Roundtable to reflect on last week’s C40 Cities climate leadership group meeting in Brazil, where the World Bank signed an agreement with mayors from around the world to provide significant technical and financial assistance for climate-change-reduction projects. Are cities in the right position to manage the effects of climate change?

What does this new partnership means for the future of global climate change agreements? Can a series of less ambitious initiatives such as this compensate for the failure to establish a binding global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Ravi Narayanan is Vice Chair of the Asia Pacific Water Forum, International Mentor to the Japan Water Forum, and Chair of the International Steering Committee of the Water Integrity Network. He was a member of the Advisory Group for the Asia Society's Leadership Group on Water Security in Asia.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the title of the World Bank's report on Climate Change, Disaster Risk and the Urban Poor shifts the focus of the discourse to the vulnerabilities of poor people to sudden climatic events, and the risks faced by them, without necessarily engaging in a potentially contentious debate about the phenomenon of climate change itself.

For there can be no doubt that relentless migration to urban areas has pushed many, many millions of poor people to precarious and fragile habitations on unstable hill slopes, the embankments of river courses and storm water drains and flood plains, all of which leave them them vulnerable to "normal" disasters. Climate change adds another element of uncertainty in an already risky environment.

Many if not most municipalities in urban centers in the developing countries of the Asia Pacific region are institutionally weak and lack the capacity for long-term planning of basic services, much less the ability to cope with disasters which, if not predictable, are certainly inevitable. All the more reason, therefore, to help them build their capacities to "mainstream" risk mitigation strategies as part of their normal planning cycle.

But this realization and aspiration have to come from citizens and urban authorities themselves, who have to prepare themselves to strengthen the basic structure of their administrations over the long haul. It would be a pity if, as in many other cases, the prospect of external funding drives them to develop proposals in a short-term project mode, without the stamina for, and commitment to, long-term reform and change.