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Urban resilience

September 14, 2017

DUE to its high population density, monsoon-dependent agricultural economy and aging infrastructure, Pakistan is among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change. It has already endured several climate-related losses in the form of mega floods, which are estimated to have cost the country one per cent of its annual GDP between 2005 and 2013.

In 2010 monsoon-induced floods killed 2,000 people and left over 20 million homeless. The floods submerged over a fifth of the country and destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of crops and infrastructure. In 2015, a lethal heatwave claimed over 1,000 lives in the country’s largest city, Karachi. Recently, heavy downpours inundated Karachi, bringing life to a soggy standstill.

The pattern of increasingly frequent extreme weather events predicted by scientists is becoming alarmingly obvious, but efforts to mitigate climate change have come too little, too late. Against this backdrop of unpredictable climate events, vulnerable cities must begin preparing for climate fluctuations that are expected to occur in the future, and that may become the new norm.

Investment in infrastructure can save lives.

A global ranking of cities under threat from natural disasters shows that floods are the biggest threat to residents, followed by earthquakes and storms. Densely populated urban areas are especially vulnerable to flooding due to largely impermeable surfaces and insufficient drainage facilities. Torrential rains can immobilise an entire city. Fallen trees and debris block pathways while trash clogs the sewers, rendering the drainage system ineffective. Waterlogged rooftops can suddenly collapse, causing casualties while standing rainwater destroys the asphalt of roads. Pools of freshwater also provide ample breeding ground for mosquitoes, resulting in the outbreaks of illnesses such as dengue and malaria. In Pakistan, a heavy downpour almost certainly signals a city-wide electrical breakdown while electrocution from fallen electrical lines is a common cause of fatalities.

Karachi, according to the latest census, has nearly 20m residents and is also the country’s financial hub. Its proximity to the Indian Ocean, and high concentration of people and assets, makes it highly vulnerable to natural hazards such as tropical cyclones and urban flooding. It is therefore imperative that urgent measures are discussed and undertaken to build resilience to climate change.

The Rockefeller Foundation defines urban climate change resilience as “the capacity of cities (individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems) to survive, adapt, and thrive in the face of climate-related stresses and shocks, and even transform when conditions require it”.

Timely investments in resilient infrastructure could help protect lives and livelihoods and save the government millions of dollars in recovery and rebuilding from climate-induced disasters such as tropical cyclones, storm surge and monsoon-induced floods that are expected to becoming more frequent and more intense in coming years.

While there is no silver bullet for building resilience, the ever-present risk of a natural calamity calls for coordinated action and a multipronged approach to equip urban dwellers with the necessary tools to cope with disaster, minimise losses and return to normalcy as quickly as possible after a disaster. As a first step, the authorities should conduct a thorough risk-assessment to assess points of vulnerability and prioritise areas of action. They should also evaluate critical infrastructure systems including energy, water supply, transport, communication and waste management networks and ensure that deteriorating infrastructure is renovated and strengthened to the extent possible before the next disaster strikes.

In the long term, the city administration should revise building codes to account for changing risk profiles, create more permeable spaces such as green parks and detention basins to temporarily store storm water, incorporate efficient drainage systems and plant more trees to absorb excess water. Meanwhile, utility companies can secure transmission networks, strengthen physical infrastructure and develop emergency response plans to im­prove coordination between infrastructure sectors and government agencies. Individual communities can establish ‘safe houses’ in large schools or public buildings where people can gather in the event of an emergency. Disaster response training should also be made mandatory in schools, colleges, universities and offices to educate people about precautions to minimise loss and damage during severe floods.

To maintain competitiveness and enhance security of supply and service delivery, the private sector must invest in resilient infrastructure. Insurance companies in particular must convince clients to incorporate climate resilience throughout business processes to reduce exposure to extreme weather events.

Ultimately all stakeholders including the government, private sector, research community and policy makers must act in collaboration to enable the city to withstand future shocks and stresses and flourish in the face of a changing climate.

The writer is an environmental consultant.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2017