Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Need for Climate Change Resilience in Urban Infrastructure: A Closer Look at Sri Lanka

By Chatura Rodrigo
IPS Reseracher 


Rapid urbanization has aggravated the deficiencies of basic services and infrastructure in the developing world, particularly in the Asia and Pacific. In many of these countries, evolving infrastructure can be particularly climate-sensitive and therefore highly vulnerable to natural disasters. Because climate-related events cut across socio-economic sectors and administrative jurisdictions, they can jeopardize development objectives in distant places. Public infrastructure tends to be multifunctional in nature and serves a range of diverse stakeholders spread over a wide geographic area; directly or indirectly providing critical services to the areas they cover. Interruptions in services can cause negative economic impacts over a large territory. The lack of reliable services impedes a country’s ability to pursue development goals. For this reason, it is vital that development strategies incorporate efforts to increase the climate resilience of infrastructure, especially taking into consideration the risks of climate change.

Expanding urban settlements in the developing world will continue to face severe climatic risks in light of climate change. Urban populations will increasingly be forced to cope with rising incidents of flooding, air and water pollution, heat stress and vector-borne diseases, as a result of overcrowding, inadequate drainage channels, expanding informal settlements, and urban expansion in to risky sites. In addition, increased climate hazards, coupled with rapid urbanization, are likely to put an increased strain on the capacity of local governments as they attempt to respond to the vulnerabilities of the urban population – particularly the urban poor.

Despite these challenges, present climate change adaptation projects largely ignore urban areas in favor of rural livelihood focused activities. Rural livelihoods are seen to be more dependent on climate sensitive, natural resource based livelihoods, while having less protective infrastructure for climatic extremes. This has meant that poor urban populations have not commonly been considered to be priorities in climate change adaptation planning, and interventions. Therefore, they do not benefit from climate-related infrastructure investments in the rural areas and/or are made more vulnerable because of their dependence on faulty infrastructures, such as substandard housing. Recent research highlights an urgent need to improve our understanding and action on climate vulnerability, particularly for adaptation in urban areas where poverty levels and population growth rates are highest.

As developing economies, there is an immense pressure for countries like Sri Lanka to target its infrastructure development to rural areas. Despite this, studies show that the urban poverty is also considerably high and on par with rural poverty. To make things worse, majority of the urban infrastructure in Sri Lanka is not in a state to withstand impacts of climate change, such as heavy rains and floods.  It has been a constant struggle for urban cities like Colombo to withstand the adverse effects, which sometimes shuts down the functionality of the metropolitan for several days.  Infrastructure policy makers had enough evidence to address these issues yet, lack of proper planning and funds were often holding them back.  Fortunately, with the post-conflict development boom, opportunities were presented, policies were drafted and projects were initiated to make urban cities more resilient to climate change.  

Sri Lankan Context

Sri Lanka is urbanizing rapidly, with at least 50% of its projected 22 million population expected to be living in urban local authorities by 2020. The estimated urban growth is 3% annually and the urbanization trends show a rapid transformation of rural areas to urban.  The influx of migrants into cities and towns has overwhelmed infrastructure systems originally designed for much smaller numbers. The infrastructure and services in urban areas cannot cope with the rapid pace of expansion of the urban areas.. Whilst the government’s Mid-Term Development Framework recognizes the positive impacts of urbanization, around 70% of this population and 80% of national economic infrastructure are concentrated in coastal cities and cities in disaster prone hilly areas. These cities are highly vulnerable to disasters and predicted climate change impacts including sea level rise, salination of water resources, storm surges, floods, landslides and malaria/dengue epidemics; all of which negatively impact human settlements, city productivity and service delivery – especially for the poor.

Frequent natural disasters have directly contributed to constraining the country’s efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, specifically at a local level. The increase in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters over the past few years has resulted in major socio-economic impacts on townships and human settlements, especially in disaster prone provinces. Frequent flooding in the Eastern Province and landslides in the Sabaragamuwa Province have resulted in displacement, loss of livelihoods and loss of life. Despite this vulnerability, there is an increasing trend to expand built-up areas through unplanned development activities. To increase the resilience of both new and existing infrastructure, we must be prepared to plan ahead and manage the impacts of climate change. 

As infrastructure assets have long operational lifetimes they are sensitive not only to the existing climate at the time of their construction, but also to climate variations over the decades of their use. For example, a substantial proportion of infrastructure built in the next five years will still be in use long after 2030. New infrastructure can be made climate resilient by ensuring that an asset is located, designed, built, and operated, with the current and future climate in mind. Existing infrastructure can be made climate resilient by ensuring that maintenance regimes incorporate resilience to the impacts of climate change over an asset’s lifetime. To achieve this, possible adaptation measures include: (1) ensuring infrastructure is resilient to potential increases in extreme weather events such as storms, floods, and heat waves; (2) ensuring investment decisions take account of changing patterns of consumer demand as a result of climate change; (3) building in flexibility so infrastructure assets can be modified in the future without incurring excessive cost; and (4) ensuring that infrastructure organizations and professionals have the right skills and capacity to implement adaptation measures. The result of all this will be a more resilient and robust infrastructure network that is able to cope with projected climate impacts, for example, increased flexibility to cope with uncertainty without massive failure and economic cost. 

The Metro Colombo Urban Development Project (MCUDP), implemented under the Ministry of Defense and Urban Development of Sri Lanka aims to provide early and timely support to the government of Sri Lanka’s long-term urban development programme for Metro Colombo. This will be done by focusing on high-priority catalytic metropolitan investments aiming to reduce the physical and socio-economic impacts of flooding and heavy rains in the capital city area, and long-term capacity building for metropolitan management, local service delivery, and implementation support.  The proposed project will consist of two main components: (1) Flood and Drainage Management, and (2) Urban Development and Infrastructure Rehabilitation for Metro Colombo Local. Under the first component, it is expected that the  project would finance both structural and non-structural activities related to flood control and drainage  investments identified as a priority by the inter-agency Flood Mitigation Task Force, chaired by the Sri  Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLRDC). It is proposed that the bulk of the structural investments will be aimed at improving the system of primary and secondary canals, lakes, retention areas of the Colombo Basin, and the micro drainage system within the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) areas. These developments have factored in climate change impacts that could occur in the future through proper stakeholder consultation, Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs), and Strategic Environment Assessments (SEAs). Under the second component, the project would support institutional strengthening for sustainable metropolitan and local infrastructure and service provision, and implementation support.

The concept of climate resilient cities has now spread beyond the metropolitan city of Colombo, and there are new initiatives focusing on other townships as well, which are disaster prone and highly urbanized. One such initiative is the “Disaster Resilient City Development Strategies for Sri Lanka Cities”.  The project is implemented by UNHABITAT in partnership with the Urban Development Authority (UDA), Ministry of Local Government and Provincial Councils, and the Disaster Management Centre is responsible to prepare land use plans and development plans incorporating Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) features. This project aims to establish sustainable disaster resilient, healthy cities and townships in disaster prone regions of Sri Lanka. It will be implemented in four municipal council/local authorities (MC/LAs) – Kalmunai, Batticaloa, Ratnapura, and Balangoda, which are vulnerable to disasters. These cities are situated in two lagging regions – the Eastern and Sabaragamuwa provinces of Sri Lanka.  These four cities/townships have been selected based on their vulnerability to multiple disasters, them being declared urban development areas under the UDA law – which indicates potential for urban growth, and the unavailability of development and land use plans.

The Policy Outlook for Sri Lanka

Effective, reliable infrastructure underpins economic activity. Recent impacts from flooding and severe weather events emphasize the risks that national infrastructure could face and the significant economic damage such events bring. If today’s extreme weather events become both more frequent and extreme; so too will the level of disruption that they cause, unless appropriate adaptation action is taken. To reduce the risk infrastructure faces from climate change, planned but flexible adaptation responses are required. It is not about eliminating all risks from climate change or extreme weather. It is about making the necessary interventions to the development plans and practices to make sure what is being built will withstand the adverse effects of any future event.    With a higher migration rate from rural to urban, Sri Lanka’s metropolitan cities will soon become over populated, centres of economic growth – not to mention that some cities have already crossed their population thresholds. The significance of climate change resilient infrastructure is, therefore, more important now than before.  In order to overcome inevitable climate change effects and to prevent any economic losses, these cities must have infrastructure that is able to withstand a hard hit. The policy outlook in this perspective is positive for Sri Lanka. While Sri Lanka has not yet published a separate policy on climate resilient infrastructure, elements of it are appearing in the national discussions and in the development initiatives, with respect to urban areas.  Most importantly, the government’s vision document, the “Mahinda Chinthana”, has also put a considerable emphasis on the importance of building cities that are sustainable and are able to withstand the effects of climate change. With the Ministry of Defense and Urban Development leading the way forward, international organizations such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), UNHABITAT, and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), are also increasingly making climate resilience infrastructure in Sri Lanka a priority. 

 1. Tomas Tanner, Tom Mitchell, Emily Polack and Bruce Guenther, 2009, “Urban Governance for Adaptation: Assessing Climate Change Resilience in Ten Asian Cities”, Institute of Development Studies, Working Paper, 315.

2. Ranjith Perera and Ariva Sugandi Permana, 2009, “Review of Current Practices and Criteria Used to Integrate Environmental and Social Aspects into Urban Infrastructure Development Processes in Cities in Asia and the Pacific”, Urban Environmental Management Porgramme, School of Environment, Resource Development, Asia Institute of Development, Bangkok, accessed on line 30th January 2013.

3. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 2011, “Paving the Way for Climate Resilient Infrastructure: Guidance for Practitioners and Planners”, UNDP, accessed online 4th February 2013.

4. Ministry of Defense and Urban Development, Sri Lanka, http://www.defence.lk visited on 6th February 2013.

5. United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UNHABITAT), http://www.unhabitat.lk visited on 6th February 2013.

6. World Bank, Sri Lanka, http://www.worldbank.lk visited on 6th February 2013.

7. United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), Sri Lanka, http://www.unops.org visited on 6th  February 2013.

8. Department of National Planning, Sri Lanka, 2010, “Government of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Chinthana” , accessed on line 30th January 2013