What can be done to protect cities in developing countries from the ravages of climate change? This is quite possibly one of the most urgent questions facing humanity in the context of climate change, given that it is becoming increasingly likely that international measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will fail to prevent some of the predicted consequences.

In addition, cities in developing countries face a "perfect storm" of factors which make them especially vulnerable, according to Debra Roberts, one of the authors of the chapter on urban impacts in IPCC's report published earlier this year on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

Besides being in already hotter parts of the world and suffering from poverty, these cities often also suffer from growing population levels, weak government, inequality and multiple forms of environmental degradation. They lack the resources, skills and capability for taking the necessary actions.

“UN projections suggest that almost all the increase in the world’s population up to 2050 will be in urban centres in what are currently low- and middle-income nations,” says the report. What's more, UN and Red Cross studies show that a high proportion of the world’s population most affected by extreme weather events is concentrated in urban centres.

Many of these cities “lack both local governments with the capacity to reduce disaster risk, and much of the necessary infrastructure,” the report says, making many recommendations for them to follow, but finding few already existing examples of "the action plans, budget commitments and regulation changes [needed] to implement them" - in the developed world let alone the developing world.

A survey in Bangkok advised the flood-proofing of homes, building elevated basements, and moving power-supply boxes upstairs, along with keeping enough food, water, fuel, and other supplies for 72 hours; it also recommended regulatory changes to bolster resilience including land use restrictions in floodplains and other at-risk sites and revised safety and fire codes for buildings and other structures (BMA and UNEP, 2009).

Cape Town’s climate change framework (2006) proposed housing interventions including regulations for building informal housing, in part to reduce the need for emergency response and anticipate projected climate change.

Planning for extreme heat

Urban centres facing extreme heat require plans that provide early warning for citizens, inform them of measures they can take and ensure adequate water provision, back up electricity, emergency healthcare, and other public services focused on vulnerable residents, especially infants and the elderly in hospitals and residential facilities (Brown and Walker, 2008; Hajat et al., 2010) or living alone. Public buildings with cooling may also be required.

But what of the several hundred million urban dwellers in low- and middle-income nations have no access to electricity? With scant provision for water, sanitation and drainage and with weak, under-resourced institutions?

Various estimates have been made of the amount of investment required to install and update the water, power and sanitation infrastructure of cities in developing countries and all are way in excess of the funding agreed by developed nations to give to developing countries for climate change mitigation measures (even if that were forthcoming, which it is not).

So where can we look for good examples of creating resilience in the cities? ELLA is a Learning Alliance on Climate Resilient Cities and provides some case studies from Latin America, where work in this area is most advanced.

At a recent conference it held on climate change adaptation, Learning Alliance participants from Africa, Asia and Latin America discussed how climate change planning and policy practices might be enhanced in their own countries and noted that implementation was weaker in Africa and Asia than in Latin America, due to such reasons as a lack of infrastructure, low institutional capacity and financial constraints.

The necessary requirements for climate adaptation

Participants agreed that central government support is essential in the development of effective climate change policy and planning strategies, while also recognising the importance of community-based adaptation, meaning that improved coordination between top-down support and bottom-up ideas is needed.

Bangladesh highlighted strong institutional capacity; many African countries highlighted the short-lived continuity of many programmes.

“Bangladesh has been recognised as a model for its long-term disaster management experiences and expertise. Bangladesh’s Climate Change Strategy And Action Plan 2008 has already been endorsed by the national government. The current development agenda is reflected in the six strategic pillars of this Action Plan, namely, (1) food security, (2) social protection and health, (3) comprehensive disaster management, (4) infrastructure, research and knowledge management, (5) mitigation and low carbon development, and (6) capacity building and institutional strengthening,” said Syed Amdadul Huq at the conference.

Many countries in Africa and Asia have established National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs), which support Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the process of prioritising responses to the urgent needs of CCA.

But according to Frank Kamanga from Malawi, "large-scale adaptation initiatives are not being implemented by the government of Malawi, due to lack of a national climate change policy and because of lack of funds to implement the adaptation Plan of Action." In the absence of this, he says that local councils, NGOs and faith-based organisations are undertaking initiatives at the local level.

Lack of coordination

In theory, it seems obvious that climate change adaptation and development should come together because there are advantages of scale and economy in tackling them both together. But in practice this does not happen very much, although it is beginning to change in Latin America.

Too often, climate change adaptation programmes are run by environmental ministries - if they are run at all - and do not have buy-in from the government departments responsible for social and economic development. They must all cooperate together and then they must be backed by sufficient funding and institutional capacity.

In Africa, particularly, there is often found poor coordination between different levels of government, frequently at the community level, where the community is not consulted and their resourcefulness is not engaged, with a consequent lack of integration of vital local, indigenous knowledge.

Furthermore, it's often found that organisations can carry out conventional development activities and then try to present them as adaptation.

The bulk of the adaptation work in these areas is still driven by international NGOs because they possess the technical knowledge and financial capacity, but they do not have the ability to follow through all necessarily connect with the local community, Jimmiel Mandima, from the United States, told the conference.

There was a consensus at the conference that "communities should be reasserted as the focal point of CCA implementation and programme ownership in order to increase effectiveness and continuity".

Durban, South Africa

 Durban port

Durban, which hosts one of the biggest container ports in the world (above), is a good example of this in practice. According to another IPCC author, Katharine Vincent, it demonstrates that urban centres do not need to choose between either development or adaptation.

“Durban’s green corridors and ecosystem-based adaptation… has improved the integrity of the natural environment, brought green into the city, created opportunities for tourism, and has positive impacts on air quality at the moment, whilst also improving resilience in the face of climate change. Equipping low-cost housing with energy-efficient solar water heaters improves the lives of residents now, without the accompanying increase in carbon emissions. So I don’t think it’s an either/or..."

Climate projections for the city show an increase from 30%-200% - of rainfall variability by the end of the century. “Sea level rise along the municipality’s coastline is already 2.7cm per decade and may accelerate in the future,” say the IPCC report author Debra Roberts, who is also the environmental planning head of Durban, and her colleague Sean O’ Donoghue.

A few years ago, the city began a cross-sectoral approach, pitting its disaster management unit with all sectors to develop early warning systems, identify vulnerable areas and communities, and draw up strategies to reduce risk and climate-proof infrastructure. About two years ago it shifted the focus to specific sectors, "ones that were aligned with existing business plans, development objectives and available funding and skills," says Roberts, concentrating initially on two sectors, water and health.

Roberts reports that the water sector intervention (protecting and conserving water sources), has made some progress by partnering with the private sector and overseas backers (including a $100 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to be a pioneer for Resilient Cities) to protect a wetland in an industrial park, and has set up a regional partnership with neighbouring areas to revive wetlands along the Umgeni river to prevent flooding. Strong partnerships with local technical and academic institutions are vital to build knowledge and a database for vulnerable areas, she says.

Uphill task

Durban is a rare example in Africa. the World Bank is working with selected cities in Africa and elsewhere in an effort to improve the quality of governance, awareness of these issues and the availability of finance.

 As the fans how youBut one thing is clear: for many decades to come, the majority of the world's urban population, its poorest, most vulnerable citizens, will be at the greatest risk from climate change's effects unless rich countries behave very differently from how they do now.