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Putting a floor under Asia’s sinking cities

Rising sea levels will affect many Asian countries, particularly those in Southeast Asia. There needs to be fresh approaches and policies to manage what is termed a ‘super wicked problem’, SEI Asia Research Associate Dimas Fauzi writes in Fulcrum.

Dimas Fauzi / Published on 4 March 2022
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Dimas Fauzi

The increasing threat from climate change has made coastal cities more vulnerable to floods, which extreme weather events could exacerbate the impacts of. In the next three decades, rising sea levels will severely affect low-lying Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. As a result, an estimated 300 million people living in these sinking cities will be affected by floods in 2050. While developed countries generally have better mitigation and adaptation strategies to the ‘sinking cities’ problem, developing countries, such as those in Southeast Asia, are often left out due to the lack of financing, policy frameworks, and technological know-how.

There is a relationship between economic growth and the growth of urban areas. In many countries, export-oriented growth corresponds to the expansion of urban areas near coastal ports. These coastal cities are prone to the adverse impact of climate and environmental changes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported that over the last 100 years, the mean global sea level has risen by an average of 1-2 cm/year. The IPCC also acknowledged that sea-level rise (SLR) could be influenced by human activities, such as subsidence and coastal development.

The policy responses to the ‘sinking cities’ problem in Southeast Asia are mostly infrastructural, dating back to the colonial era. Governments often approach the problem by building dikes, seawalls, and land reclamation. Such infrastructural solutions are more appealing to the public, as they provide a sense of security and protection from floods. In addition, some infrastructural solutions to address floods are financially more attractive than some nature-based solutions that could provide flood protection while addressing climate change. These include the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development in Indonesia and the Manila Bay Integrated Flood Control, Coastal Defence, and Express Way project in the Philippines. However, these infrastructural solutions do not yield a long-term result as they only address the symptoms, but not the root causes.

When these infrastructural protections fail, coastal communities often have to abandon their homes or adapt to the changing landscape. For instance, communities in Manila Bay in the Philippines and Northern Jakarta in Indonesia have been adapting to drastic landscape changes due to SLR and land subsidence. Although some of these infrastructural solutions have failed to protect these communities from inundation, policymakers do not appear to be changing their approach. Why is that the case?

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