Island States of the Global South and the Challenge of Building Urban Climate Resilience

By |2024-01-04T16:29:53+01:00November 24th 2022|Resilient Cities and Climate|

Cities around the world are racing to mitigate and adapt to the threats posed by climate change. Stephania Constantinou lays focus on the cities in the Global South – especially island and small island states – that face the task of developing climate-resilient infrastructure to safeguard their existence.

If 93 out of the 195 countries around the world are recognised as island nations, almost half of the world’s governments are naturally more susceptible to the effects of climate change. With only a handful of the developed island nations located in the Global North, the rest is regarded as small island developing states (SIDS) situated in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans, including the Caribbean Sea, which by default classifies them as the Global South together with other developing nations. Due to their proximity to water and their isolated geographies, island countries are more susceptible to climate-related disasters. According to a study measuring the vulnerability of more than 5,000 islands worldwide (including non-island states), climate change will not only erode localised island ecosystems. Still, it could also trigger a chain reaction and have catastrophic consequences on global biodiversity.

Despite the island states’ vulnerability, they are not powerless, as the Foreign Minister of the Maldives, Abdulla Shahid, asserted in his keynote address last September at the forum ‘Ocean Nations: An Indo-Pacific Islands Dialogue.’ Great achievements – such as the Samoa Pathway of 2014 and the Malé Declaration 2007 – have come to pass with the alliance of islands that have struggled to make their voices heard in the international arena of multilateralism.

An Attempt to Save the Future

While geopolitics is played out under the terms of bigger regional powers trying to safeguard their strategic interests, small islands have more important priorities to address, such as the existential threat of climate change. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), SIDS make up two-thirds of the countries that suffer the highest annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) losses from natural disasters. Naturally, island states and their citizens, along with their limited resources and capabilities, are in the process of rethinking and envisioning new urban possibilities to help them develop urban climate resilience.

Singapore, one of East Asia’s leading island nations, and a city-state with foresight are planning for worst-case scenarios about climate change. While other governments are seeking ways to finance climate adaptation and mitigation policies, Singapore is already planning to invest approximately 100 billion dollars in climate-resilience strategies to safeguard the city from floods caused by rising sea levels and rain, as well as temperatures that are much higher than those anticipated in the Paris Agreement.

Singapore – Planning With Foresight Means Planning for Worst-Case Scenarios

Singapore is no stranger to engineering projects that include reclaiming land and embracing technology for renewable energy or even vertical farming. One of Singapore’s signature policies has been sustainable urban design. Local authorities have encouraged a green building programme that requires new architectural projects to be covered in greenery and to progressively achieve zero energy. Ushering the world into a new era of smart cities, Singapore has also been a leader in digitalisation, which aims to achieve economic growth by cutting down emissions. The city state’s government is investing in the future because it is well aware of the risks the densely populated island faces if no action is taken towards building a circular city.

However, not all island nations can rely on Singapore’s technical and financial resources. While climate change is a matter of national security for all islands, it is especially pressing for those developing island nations that feel unprotected by the international legal system. It has persistently refused to act against the highest carbon-emitting countries and in favour of those most gravely affected by climate disasters. Urban and rural areas in these islands are being left behind in the race towards sustainable development. Being hammered by unsustainable national debt obligations, outdated infrastructure and poor sanitation systems, cities like Jakarta on the island of Java, Indonesia, are facing an uphill battle against the elements of aggressive climate change.

Unsustainable Development Projects and Poor Urban Planning – the Case of Jakarta

Jakarta, known for being highly congested and for poor urban planning, has been dealing with severe floodwaters that have gradually submerged two-fifths of the city under sea level. The pursuit of economic development that would help classify the capital as a megacity has practically destroyed the island’s rainforests. Jakarta’s unsustainable development projects have also swallowed up nearby towns throughout the years, leaving them defenceless against the devastating effect of rising tides that are covered in plastic waste. The proposed solution is relocating Indonesia’s capital to the island of Borneo, which government officials believe will help reduce inequalities and bring about growth. Nevertheless, the environmental degradation that led to this decision is a salient example of how developing islands are struggling to protect their urban areas from natural hazards. Moving the capital to another island also raises questions about how the new city will be built amidst one of the world’s most important rainforests and a supposedly protected area.

Singapore and Jakarta – Exemplary For Urban Disparities

Despite their geographical proximity, the two island nations are radically different in their development policies. As two of East Asia’s most important and vibrant cities, they also typify the divides that exist across urban areas within the Global South. These discrepancies result from national histories, economic strategies, and governance regimes, which in turn shape urban disparities across island nations facing the same existential threat of climate change.

Urban areas, both old and new, call for the convergence of social, economic, and environmental resilience. Gentrification trends and weak institutional capacities increase the severity of the climatic challenges laying ahead for island and small island states. However, focusing on resilience and integrated preparedness is a key factor in the establishment of efficient disaster risk reduction mechanisms and projects created by local governments and guided by global governance frameworks. In addition to partnership programs between island states, the support of the international community is vital for the islands’ cutting-edge transformation of urban climate-resilient development, so they too can protect their ecosystems and economies.

Stephania Constantinou