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Challenges facing coastal cities
Big investment is needed in coastal and river barriers, sea defences and major drainage projects to address flood risk.
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Making a lasting difference

Climate resilience needs to be integrated into all development spending that flows to poorer communities in a joined-up, programmatic way.

Focusing development funding on climate resilience should bring about a virtuous cycle of economic and social progress. Effective management of climate risks encourages the private sector to invest and provide employment. This creates higher tax receipts which, in addition to direct investment by the private sector, can pay for enhanced resilience. What changes are required to put this model for sustainable development into practice?

A comprehensive approach

Many developed countries have already pledged to provide significant climate-related funding to lower-income countries as part of international agreements. But we need to go further and adopt a programmatic approach that looks at all development spending from a climate resilience perspective. For the exposed, vulnerable and fragile communities that we are looking at, if we don't tackle the looming climate change threat, all other development activities will become irrelevant: it is no good investing to achieve economic growth and other beneficial outcomes if they can be washed away, burnt or destroyed by the physical hazards we know are coming down the line. Economic development without accompanying resilience would also create increased inequality and disparity. The World Bank estimates that without urgent action, climate impacts could push an additional 100M people into poverty by 2030.  

At present climate resilience is treated locally, through individual projects which fix small problems. But they are effectively sticking plasters on a much bigger problem. Communities are only as strong as their weakest link, and there are a lot of links. Across most of the world, delivering resilience requires a systemic approach – one that sees the big picture, co-ordinates and integrates multi-sectoral programmes, and engages affected communities.

The international community already has a collective and organised approach to the evidence base for climate threats. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reviews the scientific evidence and carries out assessments of risk at national and regional scales, which are updated regularly. We need to use this evidence to support the delivery of climate resilience.

The World Bank, regional development banks, national development agencies and NGOs have all led valuable work individually. They need to be part of this co-ordinated approach.

Decisions on the viability of communities

Any systemic approach must start by making use of the work that has been done by the IPCC and the international scientific community to identify the places and people most at risk, and what needs to be done to keep them safe in the long-term.

We will have to make difficult decisions. Unfortunately, not all communities can be protected in a way that is viable. This is true even in comparatively wealthy developed countries: as at many locations on the UK coast, residents of Fairbourne, a village in west Wales, have been told that their sea defences will not be maintained beyond 2054 because it will become too costly in the face of anticipated sea level rise. The village will eventually be abandoned to the sea. Fairbourne is just one of countless villages and towns, globally, facing this fate. And there are other risks facing additional communities: drought, fire, flooding and wind.

Thankfully, the majority of communities are not yet in in existential peril, but there is no time to waste.

When considering how to build more resilient communities across the developing world it can be helpful to differentiate between rural and urban contexts, because there are some quite different issues in each.

Rural challenges

Main hazards in poor rural locations are drought, flooding and storms, the consequent hardship is already driving subsistence farmers off the land to cities, which is a bad outcome for everybody, since cities are beset with their own problems: overcrowding, lack of investment, inadequate infrastructure and, often, their own vulnerabilities to climate-related impacts. Farmers who stay are often forced to maintain their livelihoods by cutting forested areas for fuel or to create additional farmland – actions that further degrade the environment and reduce resilience.

The priority, then, should be to make rural communities resilient, so that their economies are secure and people have long-term prospects. This will involve information, education and help for farmers to promote sustainable farming methods: everything from seed technology to sustainable irrigation to ensure they are using water efficiently. Water resource management can provide much-needed protection against both drought and flood. Resilient roads, which are usable in wet weather and recover quickly after flooding, are required to ensure farmers have access to a marketplace, enabling them to sell their excess produce in a way that gives them a meaningful income and supplies the wider community.

This does not always imply hard infrastructure such as bridges and roads produced at high cost. Mott MacDonald’s work on the rural road network in Mozambique has shown that when the flood threat is severe, a mud track that can be reinstated quickly can be better than a hard surface that will take much longer to repair if it is washed away. We can’t stop rural floods happening, so we need to design flood resilience in such a way that communities can live with the floods, and respond and recover quickly.

Nature should be at the heart of solutions wherever possible, since natural features can often aid resilience as well as providing economic and wellbeing benefits to the population. For example, in low-lying coastal regions mangroves can afford better coastal flood protection than hard defences; in flood-prone river catchments the same is true of mature forest.

Urban challenges

Coastal cities in the developing world are at risk of sea level rise, floods and saline intrusion (where rising sea level results in salt water contamination of fresh ground- or surface-water). For Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, sea level rise is exacerbated by subsidence. The city is so susceptible to flooding that the government has decided to build an entirely new capital city. Jakarta is not alone. Worldwide, big investment is needed in coastal and river barriers, sea defences and major drainage projects to address flood risk. Planting to green cities is required to provide cooling in the face of more extreme heat. In September last year the Global Commission on Adaptation published a report that estimated that a total of $1.8Trn is needed by 2030 to meet global adaptation needs.

Many cities in developing countries have a centre of wealth, surrounded by poorer, often informal, urban sprawl. It is the poor who are most vulnerable to climate threats, and who need assistance.

There is a real danger that climate change will exacerbate social inequality. The rich will be able to pay for their own protection, while people in outlying areas will struggle to cope.

Community-wide resilience projects ought to be promoted by the public sector, but public sector finances are often so short that it is not possible. For this reason, the priority for development spending should be to provide a level of defence that builds the confidence of private sector firms, large and small, to invest, with tax receipts providing the public authorities with the capital for enhancements.

Integrating resilience into infrastructure and development

Resilience needs to be an integral part of all development and infrastructure projects, whether publicly or privately financed. This is already happening in many places. For example, Mott MacDonald has drawn up World Bank guidelines for addressing climate resilience on hydropower projects. To win funding from the World Bank, all future hydropower projects need to demonstrate that they are resilient against long-term climate threats.

Such guidelines are necessary because of the time horizons involved in investment. Infrastructure such as a hydropower plant might last for 100 years, yet investors typically consider risk only for as long as it takes to earn their return – as little as five to 20 years.

Hydropower illustrates well the systemic nature of resilience. It is not just about protecting the generating infrastructure against floods, droughts, storms and fire. It’s also about making sure that electricity is reliably distributed to the right people when it is needed, including in extreme weather. This might mean distributed, polycentric grids rather than the sort of centralised grid system that have predominated to date. To achieve resilient power supply, small-scale local generation, with minimal transmission requirements, ideally using renewable technologies, may be better than a hydropower plant.

Resilient communities

It is not just infrastructure that needs to be resilient but also communities and the people who live in them.

There are four key attributes of resilience: awareness, objectiveness, flexibility and diversity. A resilient community will be aware of the climate threats it faces, and have monitoring and warning systems in place; it will make use of objective evidence and knowledge; it will be flexible in its response and diverse in its thinking and decision-making.

To build these characteristics, education and skills training are vital. Communities must be able to understand and assess the range of impacts that they face in order to prepare effectively for them, and for monitoring and early warning systems to be effective.

Many communities have local knowledge built up from living through climate-related events of the past, and may have developed their own forms of resilience as a result. It’s about tapping into that and sharing best practice, as well as providing access to the latest knowledge built up by the international scientific community.

Mobilising micro, small and medium-enterprises (MSMEs)

An example of how small businesses can be empowered to build community resilience was shown by Mott MacDonald’s recent project with the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development (EBRD). We identified a set of measures and technologies that could be adopted by small businesses and households that would aid climate mitigation and resilience. Local banks were encouraged to offer loans to small businesses or households who adopted these approved measures and technologies, with the EBRD then helping to capitalise the local banks. The result was a flow of money into meaningful resilience measures for local communities via the banks.

Mobilising MSMEs is an important way of bringing about change in developing economies, and in ensuring that local people take ownership of resilience in their communities. This model can be copied, adapted and scaled-up.

How Mott MacDonald can help

Resilience involves often complex navigation of environmental, social, infrastructure and investment interests and issues. It requires diverse experience and insight. That’s what you will get from Mott MacDonald: the breadth and depth to advise on investment that achieves practical and lasting, beneficial outcomes in our changing world.

This is the second article in a series looking at the challenges and opportunities for achieving climate resilience in developing countries. Read about financing resilience and people and wellbeing.

John Carstensen, climate change lead, international development

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