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FEATURE: Why South Asia still has a long way to go in resilience planning

Bedoshruti Sadhukhan of CDKN Asia says many local and subnational governments in South Asia are missing opportunities to invest in climate-resilient development: a step-change is needed in awareness and action.

It is well known that South Asia is one of the world regions that is most severely impacted by climate change: it is impacted by rising temperatures and erratic monsoons, as well as increasingly frequent cyclones.

With a large population living below the poverty line, the people of the region are relatively less capable of responding to climatic stresses. The national governments of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan and even Maldives are signatories to the Paris Agreement, and are voluntarily taking action to curb emissions. And a majority of committed actions are now being undertaken by the governments in these countries.

Urban local governments play a key role in implementing countries’ national climate plans: the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). This role has been well recognised in the COP 21 in Paris, with the Marrakech Partnership acknowledging the role of non-state actors (COP22) as well as the COP 23 in Bonn, where local governments and subnational governments played a key role in shaping the outcomes of the conferences. Their importance in converting the national policies and commitments to real work on the ground is undeniable.

However, to be able to take effective action on climate change at the local level, it is necessary to build the capacity of local leaders and officials.

Pressing need for local climate awareness
In South Asia, the level of awareness among local authorities and political leaders on climate change is limited – to say the least. This results in a distinct gap in addressing climate change while implementing development projects.

For most of the political leaders, there is little understanding of how climate change impacts their city’s development. Climate impacts can occur either through stress on service delivery and resources as a result of migration from other climate-affected areas – such as the Sunderbans of India and Bangladesh – or through the direct impacts of recurring droughts and floods, which set back the city’s infrastructural development and access to resources.

This is particularly true for slow onset climatic impacts, such as temperature changes or precipitation changes which are more insidious and often fluctuate, which makes it difficult for the layman to distinguish between climate change and climate variability.

More often than not, climate action is the result of some major climate disaster in the city, which harms much of the existing infrastructure, services and even public health. This was seen in Surat in India, where city authorities worked with the organisation TARU to develop a state-of-the-art early warning system for floods, right after a devastating 2006 flood. The flood had inundated the city for days, damaging public infrastructure worth several hundred millions of dollars and bringing the vibrant diamond industry in the city to a halt for almost a month, resulting in losses of billions of dollars.

Because of the gap in linking climate change and urban development, local leaders also fail to cash in on existing government development funds to address climate impacts and make infrastructure more sustainable and adaptive. This is a great pity since experience shows that there is often very little additional incremental cost to introducing the climate lens in an infrastructure development project. For example, when the city is extending the drainage lines in newly-developed areas, one could take into account the future possibilities of altered rainfall patterns due to climate change and design the drains accordingly. This would ensure that the funds for drainage development were utilised far more sustainably.

Another issue is that local governments are often tied by government schemes that focus on one particular issue such as sanitation or water supply. This limits the ability of local authorities to utilise available funding for issues that are locally appropriate or of priority. The current Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) of the Government of India is a case in point. All local authorities are focused on utilising SBM funding for waste management. Unfortunately, few are considering this as an opportunity to plan holistically for waste management that can also reduce carbon emissions and promote resource management. Most of the actions are ad hoc, trying to address one problem in the city, with little thought for issues that may arise in future due to the changing climate.

Local governments’ climate awareness is rising
However, things are changing. More and more local governments are looking for support in resilience planning. Several government and non-government organisations as well as bilateral and multilateral agencies are supporting cities in this.

Working in the region over the last 13 years, ICLEI South Asia has observed the changes in the attitude of local governments to climate action. Cities regularly approach non-government organisations to not only support them in developing plans in a consultative manner, but also to build internal capacity among local officials to be able to identify opportunities to integrate climate action in development projects. After the City Resilience Strategy was made for the small municipality of Singra in Bangladesh, for example, they applied for and procured funding from the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative for promoting electric mobility by using e-rickshaws for ambulance services to reach all areas of the town. Building internal capacity is critical in enabling cities to take climate actions such as these.

One of the important issues that arises in climate planning for cities is the distinct lack of coordination among various departments within the local authority as well as with other government agencies that share responsibility for urban services. Several of the urban services are the shared responsibility of local governments and para-statal bodies or even state government agencies. They rarely talk to each other, let alone share information while making their internal plans. There seems to be a clear need for introducing institutional mechanisms to address this issue.

Better coordination will not only build trust among the different agencies and organisations, but also support holistic planning at the city level or even at district levels. This will also help the cities to look at the development planning through a climate lens and make holistic plans that are everyone’s responsibility.

 

Image: Assessing flood vulnerability in India, courtesy International Federation of the Red Cross.

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