Megacities at risk with growing population

An ever-increasing number of humans on the planet poses massive challenges, including here in the Middle East.

Tel Aviv Housing protest crowd demonstration 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
Tel Aviv Housing protest crowd demonstration 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
On October 31, the world population will officially reach seven billion according to the UN. Reaching that historic landmark reminds us of the massive challenges, including here in the Middle East, created by an ever-increasing number of humans on the planet.
Growing populations are also driving another mega-trend – urbanization through migration. In 1800, less than three percent of the world’s population lived in cities, yet by the end of 2008, this had risen to more than 50%, and there were 26 megacities (cities of 10 million or more inhabitants), including Istanbul, Cairo and Kinshasa.
Despite the economic success of megacities, governments at every level are preparing for the growing risks that these massive urban centers pose. For instance, will it be possible to continually meet the everyday needs of food, water and health, and also deal with the growing vulnerability of megacities to environmental stresses exacerbated by the effects of climate change? There is already cause for some alarm. For instance, the tsunami in Japan this year forced Tokyo to reconsider its approach to nuclear power and to protecting its cities.
Meanwhile, the 2003 heat wave in Paris was so devastating because both the public and authorities were unprepared for dealing with such extreme weather conditions, which were exacerbated by building practices, especially the lack of air-conditioning.
During the 21st century, megacities across the world will continue to grow, as will other large urban conglomerations. Energy demands will increase, as will demand for food, water and other resources.
The associated increased carbon emissions are contributing to global warming and pose their own climate risks. In China, where people are being subsidized to move from the countryside, cities have grown by a factor of two in only five years. The local urban “heat island” effect means temperatures in cities are increasing about three times faster than elsewhere.
THE MAIN risk for megacities on coastal plains is their increasing vulnerability to rising sea levels and river flooding, such as those devastating Bangkok right now. There will be further episodes such as the one in New Orleans six years ago when it was hit by Hurricane Katrina, without adequate protection and flood warning systems.
In at-risk countries, such as the Netherlands, researchers are preparing for these type of problems.
For instance, Delft University’s Hydraulic Engineering Department has been developing a state-of-the-art early warning and monitoring system, including the effects of subsidence, to protect coastal communities.
The larger the urban area, the greater the damage that natural hazards can inflict, and increasingly it may be impossible to protect life and property even if there is a perfect warning system. As a recent hurricane in Houston showed, despite the known dangers from combined hazards such as winds and floods, there is now insufficient time to evacuate some cities safely, even highly developed ones.
So there is a pressing need for cities to develop emergency refuge areas. In some cases these may already exist. For instance, Canvey Island in England still keeps its mound in case of another severe flood like that of 1953.
In most cases, however, refuges will need to be built from scratch.
Thus, engineers and planners are considering how to identify and design such emergency centers, whether outside or within buildings, and how these should be connected to the wider urban system, including transportation.
Training populations to use the centers effectively is also essential.
Refuges have successfully withstood cyclones and floods in Bangladesh and, unlike those in some other developing countries, have been used by vulnerable communities, because they could take their vital farm animals with them – without the animals they are destitute.
Emergency energy supplies for communities, which are essential for medical emergencies, should improve in future. This is especially so using advanced solar power – effective even in cloudy conditions.
Because of the failures to deal with some of the recent hazards impacting on megacities, governments at every level are planning for multiple hazards and are developing strategies for managing the range of environmental factors which could emerge. Moreover, other research teams are collaborating in construction of “system dynamics” models for the operation of infrastructure, environment and socio-economic aspects of megacities.
These models resemble well-known computer programs for global climate change and its interconnections to economic developments.
As with Delft’s coastal monitoring system, these will help cities to predict which hazards they face and help them decide how to prepare.
The London mayor’s office is taking a particular interest in which policy options emerge as London continues to expand. Meanwhile, numerous other cities are experimenting with air quality hazard indicators based on complex system models to appraise citizens about how the environment in their cities varies hourly and over the longer term.
What these models need is improved availability of relevant environmental and socio-economic data. Here, international agencies such as the World Health Organization and the World Meteorological Organization, as well as national governments, need to collaborate with a wider range of organizations, and make maximum use of new media. This will better enable data showing how people experience both rapidly occurring hazards such as tornadoes, and slower, but still deadly, phenomenon such as loss of crops from rising sea levels and salt penetration.
Fortunately, megacities have a global organization for information exchange and collaboration called C40 Cities. The future agenda here includes enhanced inter-city cooperation on policies for dealing with hazards, and putting more pressure on national governments to assist, especially with finance and data, and strategic priorities.
The writers are, respectively, a visiting professor at Delft University and vice chairman of the Global Legislators Organization for a Balanced Environment (Globe), and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Hong Kong.