Steering Asean's cities towards a sustainable future: The Jakarta Post Columnist

Flags of the Asean member states.
Flags of the Asean member states.PHOTO: ST FILE

Jamal M. Gawi

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Collective lessons will need to be drawn from various city development projects implemented by Asean member states with support from international donors.

Population growth and urbanisation are projected to add 2.5 billion people to the world's urban population by 2050, with nearly 90 per cent of the increase coming in Asia and Africa. In Southeast Asia, urbanisation is one of the major trends currently shaping Southeast Asian societies.

With a population of more than 630 million in 2015, more than 40 per cent of whom have already urbanised at a rate of 5.6 per cent per year in Laos, 4.6 per cent in Cambodia, 3.9 per cent in Myanmar and 3.3 per cent in Indonesia, Asean is home to some of the largest and some of the fastest growing cities of the world. A few of those cities are already some of the most populated metropolises in the world.

Without acknowledgment, the constant increase of Asean's urban population will continuously put pressure on its sustainability. Combined with the impacts of climate change, these pressures may lead to an unsustainable future for Asean cities.

On the other hand, weak planning and human resources, lack of financial resources and low levels of good governance coupled with a lack of readiness to efficiently manage urban natural resources, to use low-carbon technology and to improve disaster risk management and climate resilience, will lead to the same unsustainable future as above.

The issue is timely now that the eighth EAS Seminar on Sustainable Cities will be held in Chiang Rai, Thailand on February 8 and 9.

The study on climate change vulnerability in Asean in 2009 found that the whole of the Philippines, the Mekong River delta in Vietnam, almost all the regions of Cambodia, North and East Laos, the Bangkok region and parts of Sumatra and Java in Indonesia are among the most vulnerable regions to climate change impact.

Land subsidence is a well-known phenomenon affecting Jakarta and some other Asean cities, causing damage to housing, buildings and infrastructure, expansion of flooding areas, malfunction of drainage systems and river canals and increased inland sea water intrusion.

Weak human resources, coupled with weak planning, have led to uncontrollable development of the cities causing many social, economic and environmental problems. Many cities in Asean have evolved without any planning at all, leading to very costly social and economic implications and unpopular movements to rearrange their development.

Jakarta is one of the cities in Asean that has experienced the high cost of community evictions. Only very recently have Jakarta and some other Asean cities begun investing in the development of decent public transportation to better serve the urban and periurban citizens, mostly with the support from big donor countries and/or financial institutions.

After a long wait, Metro Manila has just completed its Sustainable Development Plan in 2014, popularly known as "a dream plan" that will try to eliminate traffic congestion, prevent households from living in hazardous conditions, remove barriers to mobility and eliminate air pollution.

Similar moves have also been initiated in other cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Bandar Seri Begawan.

The lack of financial resources is one of the major issues hampering sustainable development for big and small cities in Asean. Metro Manila's dream plan will not come cheap and will need around US$52 billion (S$73.7 Billion) until 2030. The first phase of Jakarta's MRT is costing around US$75 million per kilometre. Therefore, financial diplomacy will be a key initiative in mobilising support to sustainably develop Asean cities.

Asean has committed itself to ensure that urban areas are environmentally sustainable while meeting the economic and social needs of the people as outlined in the Asean Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint.

Supported by donors and under the purview of the Asean Working Group on Environmentally Sustainable Cities (AWGESC), Asean for example has produced the Asean Initiative on Environmentally Sustainable Cities (ESC) that covers 25 smaller and rapidly growing cities across Asean.

A few activities of this initiative have already been underway, such as the ESC Award, the Asean Certificate of Recognition for cities that meet clean air, clean land and clean water indicators assigned by the Working Group.

However, there is very little explanation about the direction where these initiatives will lead Asean cities in the future. Unlike Singapore, which is sustainably well developed and managed, many Asean cities are still struggling with social, economic, ethical and environmental issues.

Due to the lack of funding and capacity, Asean's cities will not be able to develop and implement holistic solutions. Rather, they keep strangling on low, unsustainable levels instead.

Any holistic approach to achieve livable urban development requires that economic, social and environmental perspectives supported by enabling factors are translated into participatory, well designed activities.

This approach will need to be mainstreamed into national and decentralised local-level development plans. This is also in line with the New Urban Agenda and Goal 11 of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

As the Environmentally Sustainable Cities (ESC) has been adopted by Asean as the spirit for future urban development, it has to be clear that achieving ESC will be biased toward environmental perspectives only in the beginning. In the long term, it can only be justified if economic and social aspects are also linked to trigger greater sustainability.

The ESC approach will focus on activities that support programming on, first, low-carbon technologies in which mitigation measures will be directed to achieve carbon neutrality supporting a green economy and green infrastructure. It should also utilise appropriate technologies.

Second, efficient use of urban natural resources including protecting urban ecosystems and biodiversity, an increase of green spaces and gender-friendly green facilities. It should also invest in waste-to-energy programmes as one of the pillars of the urban metabolism concept.

Third, climate resilience in which adaptation programmes are supported, especially focusing on efforts to make the cities able to absorb and recover from any shock or stress without compromising its essential functions, structures and identity.

Fourth, disaster risk management initiatives in which, through capacity building, the city and its citizens will be enabled to anticipate potential disasters in the future.

Cities are engines of economic growth. Due to unique social, environmental and physical challenges, Asean cities should be able to find their own way in dealing with these issues.

Collective lessons will need to be drawn from various city development projects implemented by Asean member states with support from international donors. These will hopefully lead Asean's cities to their sustainable and livable future.

The writer is an international consultant on natural resource governance, climate change and biodiversity conservation.