AsiaClimate Change

Adaptation or abandonment

How cities cope with climate change

Jakarta and the rising sea. Photo: harlimedit/pxhere

Life is full of tough choices. However, today’s decisions will determine the future of this planet like no other. The effects of climate change are becoming more definite by the day. The problems are most clearly visible in large fast-growing cities in Asia and Africa. Two massive capital cities are already risking state abandonment due to situations caused by environmental disaster. Indonesia and Egypt are presently tackling this crisis by planning and constructing new capital cities. Questions are arising if this strategy is one of survival – or surrender.

Jakarta is sinking and it is sinking fast. Some areas of the capital metropolitan area – including its protecting seawalls – are submerging at a rate of 25cm per year. This, together with extensive groundwater extraction in order to supply its 30 million inhabitants with drinking water, is a recipe for disaster. If that was not enough, the city’s pollution levels were literally off the charts in June, with pollution monitors reaching their maximum capacity. This has prompted environmentalists to sue the Indonesian government to force them to act. In order to relieve some of the burden on Jakarta, the government’s administrative institutions will be moved to the yet-to-be-built new capital of Indonesia. The move is estimated to cost nearly $33 billion and is predicted to begin in 2020.

Kalimantan – or the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo – will be the location for the new capital. Major concerns have been expressed whether the procedure actually will halt the climate effects or simply move the environmental issues to a more fragile area of the country. Borneo’s rainforests have been under siege since 1970 by lodging and palm oil plantations, annihilating nearly half of its vegetation. Sumatran rhinos, clouded leopards and orangutans are already risking extinction. A new capital city within their proximity is hardly in their interest.

The critically endangered Sumatran orangutan’s future might become even more uncertain with the construction of the new capital on the island of Borneo. Photo: Mike Pennington/geograph

It is relatively rare for countries to change their capital city. However, in the case of it happening there are a number of reasons to why. Brazil changed its capital from Río de Janeiro to Brasília in 1960 mainly for geostrategic purposes since Brasília is situated in the very middle of the large South American country. Naypyidaw in Myanmar, Abuja in Nigeria and Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana) in Kazakhstan, are also examples of substituted capital cities located in the centre of respective country. Canberra was selected as Australia’s capital due to a compromise between Sydney and Melbourne. However, capital cities such as Jakarta and Cairo disclose the more pressing issue of climate disaster.

Cairo is – just as Jakarta in a way – soon to be forsaken and left for its fate. A new administrative capital is currently being constructed in the Egyptian desert named Wedian City, not far from Cairo. This is heavily due to overcrowding and dangerous levels of pollution. “If the Nile is Cairo’s ailing heart, then polluted skies are its black lungs” is said about the present Egyptian capital in an article by the United Nations Environment Programme. The alternative capital will house between 6 to 15 million people and is scheduled to be finished in mid-2020. Funding is a problem, even though China has chipped in nearly $5 billion and workers from Chinese construction firms. Attention is called by critics at the high living costs of the new capital, implying that it will only be a city for the rich, leaving the poor working class in the toxic fumes of Cairo.

This is also a project among many to redirect Egyptians to other cities than Cairo, in the form of city construction programmes in the middle of the desert. Many of these cities are close to empty and are slowly being devoured by dust and sand. This raises the question if simply starting over is the way to go.

Cairo on a relatively “smog-free” day. Photo: Nina Hale/flickr

Adapt and reinforce or give up and start over, that is what it boils down to. Whatever the decision, it is going to be expensive. Risks must be taken when deciding where the investments should be concentrated. If respective governments decide to invest and focus on new projects, the environmental situation in Cairo and Jakarta will worsen. At the same time, by solely focusing on the cities in question, there is a risk everything will be in vain.

Thankfully, there are solutions. In terms of fighting pollution, exchanging fossil fuels through electrification from renewable energy sources is an effective but expensive way to go. Also widely adapting cities for people at the expense of cars and discouraging activities with high emissions. Copenhagen is seen as a successful example of this, with its approaching goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2025.

If keeping sea water out of cities was an Olympic games category, the Netherlands would be the all-time champion. About a third of the country is technically below sea level, but thanks to the world’s most sophisticated anti-flood system, not all Dutch live on boats. “We can’t just keep building higher levees, because we will end up living behind 10-meter walls” a Dutch senior government adviser explained. He instead promotes a philosophy based on adaptation, which includes radical spatial planning, crisis management, and schooling from a young age.

Dutch-made enclosing dyke with the North Sea to the left (with higher water level), and Lake Ijssel to the right. The picture is taken in 1963, proving how rising seas have permeated Dutch strategic planning for decades. Photo: Roger W/flickr

However, it would require time and vast amounts of resources for such a culture to emerge. Developing countries might not enjoy the favourable circumstances needed to implement the changes required. After all, it is the developing countries that will suffer the most from climate change even though the richer countries are the biggest emitters. Sea level rise is perhaps the most obvious and direct effect of climate change. Unsurprisingly, 9 out of 10 of the most vulnerable cities are situated in developing countries. Bangkok, Mumbai, Alexandria and Shanghai will almost completely be under water by 2050, together with entire Southern Vietnam including Ho Chi Minh City.

Climate change is here to stay – and hopefully – so are we. It all comes down to political judgement involving swift climate action and adaptation. Until we learn to cope with the climate reality, a number of exposed cities will presumably face a future of abandonment. What is most intimidating about this is that it will happen during our lifetime. Adaptation or abandonment – that is the question.

Markus Barnevik Olsson

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