Megacities in an Era of Climate Change: Living with Extremes

News | September 25, 2019

On September 5, the EastWest Institute—in collaboration with the American Pakistan Foundation and the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)—convened a panel discussion entitled “Megacities in an Era of Climate Change: Living with Extremes,” in Washington, D.C.

Moderated by Shamila Chaudary, president of the American Pakistan Foundation, the panel invited expert perspectives on the key socio-economic and developmental challenges confronting the megacities of Beijing, Karachi and Chennai in an era of intensifying climate change. Joining the panel were Dr. Tanvi Nagpal, director of the SAIS International Development Program; Uzair Younus, director of the Albright Stonebridge Group’s South Asia Practice; and Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  

The megacities featured in the discussion are largely characterized by a lack of effective coping and adaptation strategies in the face of climate hazards. A prominent example discussed by the panel was that of Chennai, a coastal Indian city with a population of approximately 10.7 million, where a deadly drought since last year has resulted in severe groundwater depletion and paved the way for the city’s worst water crisis in recent memory. As the demand for water soars, a substantial percentage of the city’s less affluent population is forced to rely on unreliable, unhygienic and often physically demanding means of acquiring this most basic necessity of life. Consequently, Chennai’s water crisis has not only gravely affected the livelihoods and health of its residents but has also amplified the inequality gap in the city. As the threat of future droughts remains imminent, Nagpal warns, there is an urgent need for rehabilitating inefficient water supply systems, improving the rainwater harvesting infrastructure and rousing popular action and political will to prioritize and timely implement proper disaster mitigation schemes.

Similarly, Karachi, as Pakistan’s chief economic engine and with a diverse population already in excess of 15 million, stands extremely vulnerable to climate shocks—as Younus holds, due in large part to particularly poor governance and lack of regulatory checks in place. While many megacities are investing in pedestrian-friendly infrastructure designed to limit heavy automobile traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, as Younus highlighted, the Karachi government has instead invested scarce municipal resources into roads and underpasses that may serve to only exacerbate exhaust pollution and urban sprawl. It is increasingly clear that the city government must inculcate sensible strategies in future infrastructural development policies. On the issue of water scarcity, Younus reported that Karachi also faces an acute water shortage and the modest supply available for consumption is often contaminated. He further added that despite rapidly escalating demand, the planning authorities have failed to efficiently work towards providing clean water to it's residents and improving the city's wastewater management and drainage systems.

Beijing, by contrast, provides a case study in the effectiveness of “environmental authoritarianism” as Turner coined, forming overnight policy responses to particularly visible and impactful climate-related threats to the city of 21.5 million. The strong central government is able to enact policies to reverse detrimental trends, perhaps most notably encapsulated in the phenomenon known as “APEC blue”—when Beijing, briefly shutting down industrial output across the city, momentarily did away with its characteristic smog in advance of the international summit in 2014. Turner explained that while the dreaded “day zero” of a fully-depleted water supply looms over several megacities, Beijing’s has already arrived more than a decade ago. However, Quick “emergency transfers” from nearby cities, including Beijing neighbor megacity Tianjin, has helped to momentarily stave off dire effects, but questions remain as to whether this is sustainable in the long term and if the effects of dwindling water supplies are transferred only to Beijing’s neighbors.

Undoubtedly, climate-change-induced water scarcity is a forefront issue to many societies and there is a compelling need for governments, businesses and citizens alike to understand the incredibly threatening challenges specific to each megacity. Inviting optimism, Nagpal reminded the audience that science and inquiry flourish in megacities, and as such many of the groundbreaking solutions to climate change threats and impacts will be incubated and home-grown. The mounting problems confronting Beijing, Chennai and Karachi are many, but megacities likewise have innumerable opportunities in undertaking appropriate and meaningful policy solutions.

Click here to view the full recording of the panel discussion.