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     Volume 8 Issue 56 | February 6, 2009 |

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Urban Islands

Nader Rahman

When one thinks of climate change, coastal belts and islands immediately come to mind, and that is partially because of the news we are subjected to on the topic. The international media has a way of controlling public perception without ever admitting to it and climate change is a good case in point. Most climate change stories which reach the international media, seem to treat the issue with kid gloves. Even in their worst-case scenarios they very rarely, if ever, say that urban city centres could bear the brunt of climate change. The reasons are not mercenary and no it isn't some international cover up. The simple fact of the matter is that it makes a better story if some villager in rural Bangladesh is the one affected by climate change, not a city slicker. The time has come to look at the issue from a different perspective, an urban perspective.

Ever since the 4th IPCC Assessment Report climate change has become a hot topic. Laughably the concept is still debated as 'questionable' and billions around the world refuse to believe it is human induced. Much like finally discovering the world was round and not flat, many millions may still believe there is no such thing as climate change, while the rest have come to accept and live with it. The only problem is when it comes to climate change, its not that easy to simply 'live with it'. Affecting billions around the world, the realisation has yet to set in that urban areas are just as prone to suffer from climate change as rural areas. Recently the BRAC Development Institute in partnership with The University of Manchester held a conference on Climate Change and Urban Poverty where the issue of climate change and its affects on urban centres was discussed. At the conference Dr. Caroline Moser, Director, Global Urban Research Centre at the University of Manchester presented a paper titled, 'Towards a Pro-Poor adaptation to Climate Change in the Urban Centres'.

The proliferation of concrete is one of the main causes of urban flooding.

The paper raised some major issues and set them in the urban centres of low and middle income countries. A topic which should be of prime importance to the 15 million people living in Dhaka. Some of the likely impacts of climate change include, an increase in heat waves, warm spells, tropical cyclones, drought, rainfall and sea levels. And in urban areas such as Dhaka, the results could be catastrophic. With rising temperatures in urban settings there is an increased risk of cities becoming urban heat islands. By definition an urban heat island is a metropolitan area which is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas. It is often said the main cause of the urban heat island is a modification of the land surface by urban development and waste heat generated by energy usage is a secondary contribution. The real problems begin when one analyses the issues and problems related to urban heat islands.

David Hume, a professor of Development Studies at the University of Manchester says, "The problems with urban heat islands are multi faceted. But if one was to look at the greatest effect it has on the poor urban population I would have to say it would be ventilation." The ventilation in urban slums is notoriously insufficient, and with rising temperatures there is an increased risk of respiratory diseases. Hume goes on to say, "the effects of climate change on urban areas includes more intensive rainfall and climate variability. Issues which are tricky to deal with, especially in least developed countries (LDC)."

The problem with cities and urban centres in LDCs are that they are not planned and as LDCs stride forward toward towards economic development they often pave the road to success with concrete. This proliferation of concrete is one of the main causes of urban flooding. With the increased rainfall that comes with climate change, urban city centres have been slow to adapt to the change and in many cases they have actively done the opposite of what was needed to tackle such problems. With the increased and intensive rainfall a greater runoff of water is created and that water must eventually find its way to soil rather than concrete for it to be naturally absorbed. In many LDCs around the world instead of protecting open urban spaces and runoff ponds and lakes they readily build concrete jungles where the natural ones were desperately needed. The result is the increased rainwater does not find proper retention ponds or even a patch of soil and thus the water keeps building up and creating a mini urban flooding effect. One needs not look further than Dhaka where seemingly even a 15-minute downpour now creates havoc as the water rises to unimaginably high levels, stranding those on foot and marooning thousands of cars at a time. These are the very real affects of urban climate change.

Huge numbers of people migrate to urban areas and populate the slums. Their collective strain is felt in every facet of city life as overpopulation exacerbates the problems of urban climate change.

The increased rainwater in urban areas also has other problems. Traditionally the lowest places in urban areas are those towards the outskirts of cities and in the third world that is where the urban poor are housed. Therefore the rainwater that does not evaporate from urban city centres often finds its way down to the areas where the urban poor live. Those areas essentially become makeshift retention ponds, and in a city like Dhaka that means displacing millions. The problems do not end there, when their homes are flooded, their sanitation facilities also go underwater thereby leaving them without proper sanitation and contaminating the water at the same time. This leads to waterborne diseases such as malaria and cholera along with much larger healthcare problems. All of this due to climate change in urban centres.

Climate change also includes the increased risk of drought, which for a city like Dhaka could potentially be fatal. Already the water table is perilously low under Dhaka city, one extended dry spell in the future could further complicate the matter beyond repair. A city cannot function without water, and if the water level beneath Dhaka falls low enough, then we may need to shop around for another place to call home. These problems are just a few that urban areas will continue to face, in the next few generations. But what are the solutions? Where does one go from here? Those questions are a little trickier to answer because often the answer changes from city to city, region to region and country to country. The developed west is reasonably equipped to deal with such problems, they continue to be at the cutting edge of technological advancements and seemingly funding is hardly ever a problem for them. For the global south the problems are far more difficult to deal with, they must adapt to the changing environment without the technology and money that the west can throw at the problem, while always keeping a watchful eye on development.

Simon Guy, the Director of the School of Environment and Development at the University of Manchester says, “not every solution to dealing with urban climate change is hi-tech. In fact some of the best ways to deal with it are quite simple. Things such as buildings designs and the construction materials used to build them offer simple way to deal with climate change.” He goes on to say, “it's all about thinking differently as to how to use cities. Small-scale adaptations are those which work best, and they must also be tailored to where they are going to be used. If that is to happen then one will end up getting the answer to a regional problem from that very region.” A good example is here in Dhaka, as it suffers from the urban heat island. There are many ways to try to adapt and mitigate the problem. The people living just outside Dhaka and often in the slums have found their answer to the problem by simply planting trees. They plant trees to provide sustenance, shade and inadvertently they also reverse the effect of the urban heat island. The plants release oxygen which essentially rehydrates the stuffy and hot air that is created from the heat island. Without knowing it they adapted to climate change in urban areas and small efforts like this could one day see people solving their own highly individual urban climate change problems.

Urban flooding not only hampers life and navigability but also creates a wealth of health problems such as cholera and malaria.

Professor Hume says, “There are no quick fixes to the problem and worryingly there are no real choices for the poor but one aspect that can be looked into is the ownership of land. As soon as the poor own land they will become more keen to save it for future generations, and that can only bode well for Bangladesh. I have been to places just outside Dhaka where up to 10 generations of people have lived and worked on the land but still do not own it. This may seem like an awkward and strange step towards tackling urban climate change, but it is a very real one.” This issue is one that seems more social than anything else but in the larger picture of dealing with climate change, it is a necessary first step. Climate change affects coastal belts and islands, but seemingly now its devastating effects have created virtual urban islands, where a sea of water is replaced by a jungle of concrete.

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