Columnist: Storms, Rising Seas Shadow City Futures

June 18, 2012

By Neal Peirce

HONOLULU -- An Asian century, an urban century -- the rise of the East and the role of such expansive urban giants as Shanghai are emblematic of popular assessments of where the world's economy is heading.

But talk with Roland Fuchs of the East-West Center in Honolulu and you hear two deeply disturbing warnings.

First the climate equation, and what it means for Asia in particular. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are rising at alarming rates, with the Pacific Rim seriously endangered. Measured since 1958 at the Mauna Loa observatory on Hawaii's big island, CO2 readings surged especially fast last year. Fuchs suggests the world could well face a rise of average temperatures by 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit (about 4 degrees Celsius) -- doubling earlier estimates -- by 2060 or 2070.

And while the impact will be felt globally, some of the most destructive blows will all but surely strike the low-lying, fast-expanding coastal cities of Asia -- cities such as Mumbai, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Bangkok, Manila and Jakarta.

As Hurricane Katrina's blow to New Orleans proved, low-lying delta cities are especially susceptible to violent storms and sea level rise. And for many Asian cities, packed with ever-increasing millions of people, the development has been so intense that the soil is actually subsiding. Rising sea level, resulting from thermal expansion of ocean water, intensified by melting of glaciers and ice sheets, becomes lethal when violent cyclones hit.

Adding to the misery is the urban "heat island" effect, illustrated by Ho Chi Minh City where there's as much as a 10-degree centigrade temperature difference between the city and its vegetated surroundings.

It's significant that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the C40 cities group focused on climate perils that he chairs, will be speaking up, demanding an urban focus at the Rio+20 environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro this week. At the first urban conference in the Brazilian metropolis in 1992, cities' voices were hardly heard.

But an agenda to cut back on new carbon emissions, as vital as it is globally, can only mitigate the dire future that rising sea levels already make certain for the delta cities.

Asian metropolitan areas account for nine of the 10 highest-risk levels for coastal flooding among all world port urban areas, according to an analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Kolkata (Calcutta), India, with 14 million inhabitants at risk, heads the list, followed by Mumbai with 11.4 million in peril and Dhaka with 11.1 million.

The only non-Asian city on the top danger peril list is Miami, with a regionally exposed population of 4.8 million. Rising Atlantic sea levels may well cause sea water infiltration imperiling fresh water supplies, wash away beaches with high storm surges, and possibly inundate the entire lower Everglades.

So what's a city (or a state) to do to protect itself against intense tropical storms, the high winds, the storm surges, the curtains of precipitation and coastal flooding they deliver?

It's not easy. Coastal floods killed 140,000 people and made 10 million homeless in Bangladesh in 1991. Storm-related floods of recent years have inundated 70 percent to 80 percent of both Jakarta and Manila. In Bangkok, the Gulf of Thailand is rising gradually each year -- while the city subsides even more rapidly.

What every city (BEG ITAL)ought(END ITAL) to do is undertake -- and keep updating -- clear assessments of its climate risks and vulnerabilities (policies both New York and Chicago have followed in recent years). Then a metropolis should prepare to build seawalls and dikes, encourage residents to live at relatively higher elevations, and create high-quality early warning systems and evacuation plans.

The dilemma is that each of those steps easily runs into obstacles. Officials may simply be unaware of how high their risks of flooding are. Trumpeting climate dangers may be a hard way for a mayor to win re-election. There's clear temptation to put available monies into schools, roads, crime fighting -- any number of seemingly more immediate (and popular) causes.

The stalemate, better called "stall," reflects the many obstacles to global environmental action -- especially to combat the melting of the polar ice caps and the impact on rising seas -- that the United Nations Environment Programme noted in a high-alarm message this month.

Yet there's no doubt that fast-growing developing world cities like those in Asia must deal with repeated waves of poor rural migrants moving onto unsettled areas that are often at low elevations. The response is hard to formulate.

From Miami to Bangkok, New Orleans to Dhaka, there is, though, one immutable fact: In the long run, upgraded infrastructure and thorough evacuation plans will cost just a fraction of the monies -- not to mention human tragedies -- of ignoring the deep perils of climate change, and especially the dangerously rising seas and storms it brings in its wake.

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.