BANGKOK (AlertNet) - Asia's cities are growing at an unprecedented rate and must improve their infrastructure and become greener to keep hundreds of millions of residents safe from floods and other disasters, a report from the Asian Development Bank said on Wednesday.
Asia added more than 1 billion people to its cities between 1980 and 2010, leading to more slum dwellers, polluted neighbourhoods and soaring greenhouse gas emissions, said the Manila-based bank. By 2025, 760 million people across the region will be at risk from costal and inland flooding, the report warned.
But a greener urbanisation process could reverse these threats and put Asia on a path to more sustainable, equitable growth, it added. That would involve making better use of renewable resources and efficient mass public transport systems, and improving regulations and city planning – boosting living standards for the urban poor.
Natural disasters, especially floods, are common in Asia. Severe downpours in the Philippines last week killed at least 59 people and displaced some 300,000. Last month, Beijing suffered its heaviest rains in 60 years, causing widespread chaos, while historic floods in Thailand last year killed 529 people and disrupted millions of lives.
"We shouldn't think those incidents are the result of just bad luck," Changyong Rhee, the ADB's chief economist, told journalists.
"In our report, the main message is that this kind of natural disaster, especially flooding in Asia, is a result of the combination of a growing risk of global warming and climate change, together with rapid and massive urbanisation in Asia without infrastructure," he said.
The region "shouldn't waste... signals from these floods," Rhee added.
Urbanisation has happened faster in Asia Pacific than other parts of the world.
In Asia Pacific, it took 95 years for the proportion of the region’s population living in urban areas to increase from around 10 percent to half, compared to 210 years for Latin America and the Caribbean, 150 years for Europe and 105 years for North America, the report said. Asia Pacific also has eight of the world's 10 most densely populated cities, it noted.
"Asia is now home to half of all urbanites on earth," it said, with the majority concentrated in China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
A decade from now, 21 out of the world’s 37 megacities - cities with more than 10 million inhabitants - will be in Asia. In 1950 there were only two such cities: Tokyo and New York.
The rapid pace of urbanisation has left little time to adjust or learn from past mistakes, while its huge scale has resulted in expanding slums with vulnerable people in sub-standard housing and few basic services, the report said.
Already, more than 500 million people, or 61 percent of the world's total slum-dwelling population, are in Asia, posing a politically and economically sensitive problem for governments.
"Above all, this... will add to the already enormous environmental stress in Asia," the report added.
The number of people vulnerable to flooding is set to increase from about 550 million in 2010 to 760 million by 2025, especially in Dhaka, Ho Chi Minh City, Tianjin, Bangkok and Phnom Penh. Air pollution, which already contributes to half a million deaths each year in the region, could worsen too.
And emissions of greenhouse gases, which are blamed for global warming, are rising fast.
"Between 2000 and 2008, the average per capita greenhouse gas emissions grew by 97 percent in Asia, compared with only 18 percent in the rest of the world, and most emissions are coming from urban areas," said the report. If nothing is done, emissions could triple by 2050, it warned.
At the same time, the ADB said growing cities can provide opportunities.
Having a critical mass of people in relatively small areas makes it easier and more cost-effective to provide services such as piped water and sanitation, while urbanisation promotes the development of the service sector which is generally less polluting than manufacturing.
The ADB urged governments to build efficient mass public transport systems to discourage personal vehicles and curb emissions. It also recommended introducing regulations and standards to support the relocation of dirty factories, as in Indonesia which has constructed green industrial zones.
Singapore's congestion and emission charges, and block-pricing for utilities in the Philippines are other examples of how to reduce resource and energy consumption, the report said.
Economist Rhee urged the region's governments to rethink their approach to infrastructure, which has tended to focus on quantity rather than quality.
"This massive urbanisation makes cities more vulnerable even without big changes in climate... Your past infrastructure may not be enough to support these new people coming in," he said.
"You cannot make (people) not come to the cities - it's part of natural growth... Then you have to think about improving your infrastructure," he added.
Multilateral banks such as the ADB and World Bank could help finance green urban development in Asia, Rhee said. But it is equally important for Asia to raise government revenues, especially by improving tax collection, which would lead to better credit ratings and access to capital markets.
"People have to recognise that without paying tax, they cannot get good infrastructure investment," he explained.
"Asia's future depends on using best practices and policy innovations to promote green urbanisation, thereby ensuring a better life for its urban residents, and the world," the report said.